Art, female identity, and day-to-day life intersect in Melissa Ann Pinney’s photographs. Deeply focused on the worlds of her daughter and other girls, Pinney’s work tells a story of girlhood as it’s being written.

Melissa Ann Pinney received a 1999 Guggenheim Fellowship for her photographs of American women and girls. This project became the book,
Regarding Emma: Photographs of American Women and Girls. Melissa Ann Pinney’s photographs are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City; the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Boston Museum of Fine Art; and the Museum of Fine Arts, in Houston, among many others. She has exhibited her work nationally and internationally. Ms. Pinney has taught at Columbia College, in Chicago, since 1984. Her photographs have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, DoubleTake, the Chicago Tribune, Ms., and U.S. News and World Report.

All images courtesy Alan Klotz Gallery. All images copyright © Melissa Ann Pinney, all rights reserved.

* * *

How did you end up basing so much of your work on your daughter?

My work on women and girls pre-dates Emma’s birth by 10 years. When Emma was born, I couldn’t not photograph her. I found the development of a new life to be very compelling. [It was] a new adventure, but also an immediate and personal extension of my “Feminine Identity” project.

There are other girls in these pictures. Everybody assumes that all the pictures are of Emma, but Emma was a quarter of the pictures in the book. It was unfortunate that everyone thought it was just about Emma. It’s wider than that. Emma is a character, but people assume that all the characters in all the pictures are her. I wouldn’t want to be thought of as someone who only photographed her daughter.

In that case, how is photographing Emma different from photographing other children?

My access to Emma and intimacy that has developed since birth, of course, makes her different to photograph than other, less familiar children. She’s worked with me for a long time!

Are you giving us a picture of modern girlhood in some way?

I think of my work like a novel, or a saga with recurrent characters, themes, seasons, and places. The pictures happen over years. [It’s] a deep, sustained work. Emma is herself, but she is also the character Emma, along with [my husband] Roger, my father and siblings, and other children. This Emma character is made up of parts of my life, too. [I’m] the unseen character in the work. She mirrors my experience growing up and my memories of girlhood. I think of the work not as a documentary but as a true fiction.

Besides containing characters, how is the work like a novel?

Like a novel, it’s a story. There are all these different parts. Someone has said, “Oh, Emma doesn’t look very happy in that picture. Does it bother you?” I say, “No, it doesn’t. It’s an artwork. It’s not a reflection of Emma’s inner state.” I’m editing from a lot of pictures. You could take all the material that I have, and get any number of [stories]. I’m picking, from all these different negatives, something that seems right to me. Why that is I don’t exactly know, but I know that it is right. Somebody else editing my work would do something different.

You live in the Chicago suburb of Evanston with your family now, and you also grew up there. How does your daughter’s childhood compare to yours?

My family came to Evanston from New York when I was in grade school. I was the oldest girl in a family of eight children, whereas Emma is an only child. She receives a high level of our attention and enjoys privileges I wouldn’t have dreamed of. My relationships to Evanston’s neighborhoods, the beach stores, and the library were certainly less supervised than Emma’s life has been so far. Of course that is changing now that she’s 12 years old. Still, I would say that my childhood was more physically adventurous: climbing out on roofs, playing in construction sites, biking and walking through the town on my own.

In what ways has the area changed since you were young?

It is tremendously more crowded, [and there is] tons of new development, and high-rises. The historic district near the lake is unchanged. I met my husband windsurfing at the beach where I sailed as a girl.

Much of the work in your new show involves sports and recreation. Is this just because Emma is active, or is there a deeper significance to showing physical activities in your photographs?

Emma is active because sport is a high priority for my husband, Roger, and myself. Roger competes in extreme sports events such as the Ultra Man Triathalon and we take a family windsurfing vacation every year. I learned to love swimming, sailing, skating, and skiing from my own athletic father. The exhilaration and speed of physical activity—the sense of being fully present and alive is akin to the awareness, sense of readiness, and timing needed to photograph on the fly, in the midst of things, as I do.

Also Title IX changed everything. This is a world that wasn’t around when I was a kid. All these girls play sports. It used to be [a girl] could be on the swim team. If you were really good, you could do gymnastics, or you could take private skating lessons. Emma’s been on the soccer team since she was five. She played baseball, softball, and basketball. There are pictures that couldn’t have been made before Title IX. [I also] think about the games that are organized by adults and that have rules, versus the games [children play] that don’t have names, and that have made-up rules that change every time they’re played.

I like the way that the children’s play can transform a space, either a house or an outdoor area, into something completely different. For example, in the photograph of the girls in the tree, their presence seems to completely change the tree.

That picture was taken in Maui. I photographed them in that tree last year just to see the comparison. Emma’s big now and that whole magical quality is gone. It was based on a scale of those girls being small enough. They made the tree look so big, but the tree really isn’t all that big. It looks very different now that the girls are a couple years older. The series on the cellar doors shows time passing as well.

In what way is photographing children different from photographing adults?

Children are less self-conscious, less guarded. I’m interested in mystery, in imaginative play, and change over time.

In your work, how is your understanding of Emma different when she’s with her father as opposed to being by herself or with other children?

I think that’s something that the viewer has to answer by looking at the photographs. There are not very many photographs of fathers and daughters in general and I think that there is probably no one who photographs the same father and daughter over time. There are a lot of people photographing adolescent girls, but did they photograph them when they were six and will they be photographing them when they’re 20? Maybe not.


TMN Editor Nicole Pasulka believes she could beat a lie detector. When she sits in a chair she almost never puts her feet on the floor. Even though she likes the internet a lot, she is convinced that people will always read magazines and she is secretly building one in her basement. More by Nicole Pasulka