Holly Lynton recently won the Syngenta Photography Open Prize award with an image, evoking classic Renaissance images of the Madonna. We ask Holly, “What is Sustainability?” Holly talks us through a compelling human and photographic journey
We recently featured the Syngenta Photography awards, more than a collection of images, it uses images as a starting point for inquiry and debate into the notion of Sustainability. Holly Lynton won the Open Prize and below she talks us through some of the key issues around the environment, nature, and local business practices she is addressing in her photography.
You got a degree in Psychology from Yale, was this not something you wanted to pursue?
While I was at Yale, I majored in psychology, but the beauty of a liberal arts university education here is that your major is only about one third of what you study. So, I also took many Art History, Photography, Creative Writing, and English Literature courses. In addition, I studied abroad as an undergraduate in Italy (a British Art History course in Venice, Florence and Rome, with travel all over Northern Italy) and Greece (Fine Art study at the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts on the island of Paros), which furthered my education in art and photography. I took consistent photography courses at Yale as an undergrad from my sophomore year through my final term. As a result, I was given an honorary thesis show even though I wasn’t an art major. I love psychology and conducted an experiment / study as my senior thesis that was later published in the Journal of Imagination, Cognition, and Personality. I also worked after graduate school as a Research Associate and published another study on Kundalini yoga and how it affects aphasia in stroke patients. I find my psychology training feeds into all areas of my life, including my photography. I simply decided not to pursue a PhD to be either a clinician or work in research. It’s a long commitment and after completing my undergraduate work, I decided to focus on pursuing a career in either photography or creative writing, my first medium. As a child, I thought I was going to have a private psychology practice and write short stories or novels, but that was before I had discovered my love of photography.
What prompted you to go back to college to learn photography?
I didn’t go back to college to learn photography. I began studying photography at Yale the first term of my sophomore year after taking a class while working on the island of Nantucket the summer after my freshman year. A few years after graduating Yale in 1994, I went on to get a Masters of Fine Art in photography at the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College. I completed that in 2000.
What do you understand by ‘sustainability’ and when did you start getting interested in the area?
I began to be more interested in sustainability when I was living in New York City. I felt there must be a better way to eat and live that didn’t tax so many of the world’s natural resources. Now, there are many debates out there among environmentalists, politicians, corporations, and agricultural experts and different opinions when you look at the past and future. To reduce it to simple terms, something that is sustainable is something that can continue and something that isn’t sustainable will cease to exist. Living sustainably to me is about finding ways to live that support the natural environment rather than destroy it. Living in a way that can continue for centuries. It seems the answers to the problems with today’s global sustainability are complicated, but one can also look to what is not sustainable to see those answers must be worked out. For instance, eating wild Atlantic Salmon became illegal as it’s not a species that will survive in the wild due to overfishing. At the Syngenta Awards ceremony and symposium, I engaged in many interesting debates and heard differing perspectives on the solutions and problems in terms of sustainability. The company is largely concerned with over-population. I was encouraged to hear that while there were many differing opinions on how agriculture should be approached now and moving forward, that many people agreed that local living – eating locally and supporting local businesses and economies was hugely important in terms of our world being more sustainable. For myself and my family, we buy the majority of our food from local farmers, and we put away food during surplus seasons for the seasons when that food is not available, as in asparagus season we eat it until we can’t stand it anymore and make many quarts of asparagus soup for winter. In this way, we are looking to the past, what did people do when they had to live off their land. This is how I am approaching sustainability. Then, we do other things like recycle, and try to generate little waste – one bag of garbage per week for a family of four. It’s small steps we commit to in our daily lives that hopefully will have a big impact, as many people in our community are doing so as well.
Which 3 photographers/artists/image-makers would you say have been most influential, in terms of subject matter and in terms of your visual approach?
This is always a hard question as I am not only influenced by image makers, but other artists and also just things I see in my daily life, like the color of a barn in a certain March light. That said, I can’t deny that studying the work of Henri Cartier Bresson wasn’t hugely influential in my work. He was one of the first we looked at in my first semester of photography. Bresson’s complexity of composition, and the magic he brings to life in an image are incredible. In his images, he draws comparisons between elements that may otherwise be unrelated outside of the photograph, but in the photograph work together to tell a story.
Lucian Freud, for his psychological portraits, Matisse for his abstraction and amazing sense of color. His willingness to work an idea until he found a burst of genius. Other inspiring artists are Nadar, Winogrand, Weegee, Hopper, Homer, Turner, Sally Mann, Anish Kapoor, to name a few. I also spend time looking at many religious painters for the way they depict light – I recently fell in love with some of John Martin’s red paintings with glorious clouds and heavenly light. The subject matter I’m exploring comes from my own personal experiences, and not the inspiration of others. In the past, it came from day dreams, memories, or witnessing an event. Now, it comes from observation and reading, word of mouth ideas and lots of research.
You say in your artist’s statement that, “I limit the visual information in my photographs and remove the original context to highlight the fantastical aspect of the scene?” How, and why, did you arrive at this approach?
This quote from my earlier artist statement is from the statement written specifically for my series “Solid Ground,” which is on my website. There is a more current statement on the website now that refers to “Bare Handed.” I wouldn’t say that this always applies to my work now. But, in a way it does. With “Solid Ground,” I was photographing in my back yard, which was a very small space — 25 x 40 feet — and nowhere in the series do I give an indication of how it was just a regular, semi-urban back yard. I approached the photographs for that series as if I were on safari in my own backyard, and created micro-worlds in that space that could feel as small or large as the imagination allows. The image “Hymenoptera,” takes place inside a kiddie pool. It’s the world of the kiddie pool up close, which feels very different in the photograph than it does in real life.
In “Bare Handed,” this aspect of my work is sometimes true, for instance, in “Les, Amber, Honeybees,” you don’t see the whole scene, where all the hives are located. The relationship between the two individuals and what is happening with the bees is what is important so that is what is in the photograph. You don’t need to see anything else.
It’s similar to what we are often taught about short story writing — that no word should be unnecessary, no word redundant. It’s similar in a good photograph. Everything within the composition should be important and inform the story of the image, no matter if it’s representational or abstract. I would say that in “Bare Handed,” I’m not removing the original context anymore as that is part of the story in these photographs. In “Solid Ground,” I was removing the context that the place was an ordinary back yard. In “Bare Handed,” the context is important, for instance in “Sienna, Turkey Madonna,” the barn and the basketball hoop are essential in my mind, if they weren’t there it wouldn’t be complete. But as I said above, the photographs should include just enough detail to tell the story, and sometimes you may not see much of the place or the larger context of where the photograph is taken, but my hope is you don’t need to, because there is enough of it. In “Stephen, Mayflies, Oklahoma,” it’s the boy, the mayflies, the bush, the sky, and the water – all the essential elements. In my photographs at agricultural fairs, necessary details of the fair are included to give a sense of place, but no people in the photograph are included that don’t contribute to the image. In general, my photographs are more abstracted from the larger environment, but in “Bare Handed” more of that environment or environmental clues are included as they are essential to the images.
Our connection to the ‘natural world’ is often romanticised in images, or naturalized. You photographs create a connection that is ‘transformative’ – such as the woman touching the man, her arm covered in bees. Or the visual empathy of the noodler and the catfish? Is this something you look out for?
Absolutely. This is what I am most interested in portraying. After photographing with the bee keeper, the wolf trainer, and the catfish noodlers, I discovered that it was about transformation, not fear or danger. They underwent a transformation I witnessed while they worked. It was amazing. I strive to capture that magic on film.
How long did it take get to know the subjects, and to shoot the series?
My work involves a lot of research. Sometimes I read about an event and set about figuring out how I can photograph it. Other times, I get to know a situation through first hand experience or learn of one through word of mouth. I always visit, gain permission, make sure the people I will photograph will be comfortable having me photograph them while at work. It can take up to a year to make a certain image as much of what I’m photographing now has a seasonal component, depending on when I discover the situation or gain permission it can require waiting for the right season. I began this series in 2008, and I am still working on it. The project is evolving, but is not yet complete. I don’t anticipate it being complete for quite some time.
What kind of camera and equipment did you use?
I use a Contax medium format camera that is now discontinued, and Kodak Portra film 160 VC (also now discontinued) so I’m evaluating current Kodak film choices, and using the Portra and Ektar.
I don’t have a singular favorite image. I could give a handful, my favorites from each series would be easy. With “Bare Handed,”Sienna, Turkey Madonna, Shutesbury,” was amongst my favorites. As is “Shorn” and “Stephen, Mayflies, Okahoma,” and “Fairest, Cummington Fair.”
What did your subjects feel about the photos?
All of the people with whom I worked closely and were able to see the images printed were very happy with them. I tend to correspond with many of the people I photograph if I can. When I exhibited locally, many came to the exhibition.
You got a prize and what are you shooting at the moment?
Yes, I recently received two awards. One award was first prize in the open competition of the Syngenta Photography Awards 2013, and the second was a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellowship. I am working on photographing the tobacco barns and other farm buildings that are collapsing in my area from disuse, and being reclaimed by nature. I am also traveling to South Carolina to photograph a number of subjects there as part of my “Bare Handed” series.
To see more of Holly’s work click here