This Week In Photography Books: Melissa Ann Pinney

by Jonathan Blaustein

I got yelled at on Monday. (It was expected, but unpleasant.) Sometimes, even when you know what’s coming, you still can’t get out of the way.

We’d just changed the hours of our art labs at UNM-Taos, and as the Chair of the Fine Arts Department, a low-level manager in an unwieldy bureaucracy, it was my job to enforce the rules.

There’s an old saying about killing messengers, and as I stepped through the open door of the Print lab, I was fairly sure that drama was imminent. The door was meant to be closed, locked, the better for students to see the fresh sign declaring our new schedule.

I knew the man in the far corner of the room. He’d been to my wedding, though we didn’t speak that night. His parents were friends with my in-laws, his late Aunt one of the most famous actresses who’d ever lived.

That didn’t matter, as he’d been sharp with me in the past, and had an edge about him like a red aura. (Is red the color of angry auras? I don’t know, but it seems appropriate.) He glared at me, begging for trouble, waiting for the slightest provocation.

I tried to sound confident as I told him he couldn’t be here, even though he was. The rules had changed, it was decided by my superiors, not my idea, just doing my job. A not-my-fault ramble that was never going to succeed.

“You’re a liar,” he shrieked!

Spittle flew like paper airplanes, slowly arching towards the ground.

“A liar! This is all your fault! You’re trying to ruin the Printmaking department! I know you are!”

I could see I was getting nowhere, so I retreated to marshall reinforcements. I returned with a calm, confident administrator, one better accustomed to dealing with the crazies, and wielding bureaucratic power with a sense of finality.

He listened to her as he couldn’t with me. As I opened my mouth to speak, his face flushed again, and he bellowed, “Back off, Junior,” at the top of his lungs.

As there were now two of us to deal with problem, when only one was strictly necessary, I left the room, crossed the hall, and began to teach my photography class. The stress chemicals pulsed through my bloodstream, but I knew I’d be OK in a little while.

Back across the hall, two people still talked about rules, and systems, and why change is hard. Fortunately, this pair was able to communicate well enough. (Better than the first pair, anyway.)

I’m in mind of such things after having read, and perused, “TWO,” a new book by Melissa Ann Pinney, edited by Ann Patchett, published last year by Harper Design.

Ms. Pinney gave me this book in September, shortly after I’d finished my “21st Century Hustle” lecture at the Filter Photo Festival in Chicago. She paid me a nice compliment, handed it over, and asked that I take a look at it when I had some time.

This happens to me fairly often, at festivals, and as there was a long line of people waiting to speak with me, I said thank you, and tucked it away. It came home with me, and my wife placed it prominently on the shelf. (At least SHE thought it was special.)

It must have been Ms. Pinney’s mellow, polite mien, because the event didn’t stick in my mind. A couple of months later, she emailed to see what I thought of the book. Embarrassed, I realized I ought to take look at the thing.

I took it off the shelf, and promptly did a double-take. No, a triple-take, when I saw the cover. This photobook featured essays by Elizabeth Gilbert, Barbara Kingsolver, and Susan Orlean.

What now?

In fact, ten prominent authors had contributed stories, and Ms. Pinney’s bio, on the back-flap, stated her work was in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, the Whitney, the Art Institute of Chicago, and a few other massive institutions.

This was a prominent, important artist, working with major writers, and somehow, in our little micro-moment, none of that came across. No ego, no attitude, nothing beyond a few gracious words, patiently expressed.

I felt ashamed, and promised myself I’d give the book its due, once I had the time.

Well, today, 4 months later, I was able to stop my natural momentum, get on the couch, and start reading this thing. Reading pictures, yes, but reading words, more importantly, as that’s what sets this book apart.

The pictures in “TWO,” shot in many places, over decades, are uniformly well-made. Good light, good color, nice balance. Always, there is two of something; a pair of objects or people that imply narrative.

Or they’re meant to. Who are they? How are they related? What are they doing? What does it mean?

Normally, that’s what I’d ask myself. But I wasn’t actually sucked in to the imagery. It didn’t grab my heart, or my gut, and force me to contemplate.

But each time I came upon a story, I read. I skipped nothing, reading, reading, and then looking at the photographs in between.

Slowly, with each passing story, the book reeled me in. It humanized the photos, to the point that I’d pay heightened attention to each successive suite of pictures, after I’d finished the previous tale, poem, or essay.

I felt like the relationship between me, and this object, was deepening with each successive minute. At first I’d been neglectful, then skeptical, and finally entranced.

In my 4.5 years of reviewing books, I can’t think of a book quite like this. The pictures need the stories, and together, the two forms of communication ably support each other, like one of the old married couples mentioned in more than one essay.

Duality, expressed by Yin and Yang, or black and white, or even 1 and 0, is deeply embedded in the philosophies and realities of human-kind. We crave companionship, and pair off to make the next generation.

It takes a secure artist to cede this much of the stage to others, to see the value in the right kind of collaboration, and I’m glad I spent a part of my afternoon embedded in this charming little world.

Bottom Line: An excellent pairing of images and words

To Purchase TWO visit: http://www.melissaannpinney.com/

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Jonathan Blaustein

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