At the core of Melissa Ann Pinney’s work lies a series of photographs of Pinney’s daughter Emma, as she moves through childhood to the verge of adolescence. The project swirls out from there, through friends and classmates, past their families, neighborhoods, social rituals and community lives, to develop a richly nuanced study of emerging female identity, with its promises and perils.
Pinney continues to follow those narratives, and the themes contained within them. The work focuses on a touchstone moment in the lives of American girls and women: their emergence from protected youth to public maturity. In these pictures, by turns hauntingly evocative and closely focused, Pinney portrays the uneasiness of that emergence-in the struggle to ?t ideal dresses to real bodies, proper etiquette to ebullient energies and appetites, natural companionship to formal conversation as the girls of a certain class prepare themselves for the rest of their lives and some of their first social contacts with boys. “The strength of Pinney’s work has always lain in her ability to sympathetically inhabit the lives of her subjects, while understanding their place in the larger ebb and flow of social life around them,” photographic and cultural historian Peter Bacon Hales has written. “The pictures are so often gorgeous in their manner, and heartbreaking in their implications; rarely do we see photographs that can imply so much without intruding or announcing their intentions.”
Part of the force of these pictures comes from the painstaking perfection of the color prints that Pinney makes from her negatives. Colors glow; mirrors snap with reflected light, skin and cloth seem tangible; figures emerge from dark spaces or drape themselves uneasily on furniture which gleams with polish and floats within the plush environments where these girls and their consorts learn to enact the rituals of appearance.
Melissa Ann Pinney’s closely-observed studies of the social lives and emerging identities of American girls and women have won the photographer numerous fellowships and awards, including a Guggenheim Foundation Grant. Her work has been included in many major museum exhibitions including The Museum of Modern Art’s “Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort” and, most recently The Chicago Art Institute’s “Girls on the Verge” exhibition in 2008, which included work by Rineke Dijkstra, Lauren Greenfield and Judith Joy Ross.