Pictura Gallery

Melissa Ann Pinney

In Their Own Light: Photographs from Chicago Public Schools

Dates + Events

April Pictura Kids: Melissa Ann Pinney

Saturday, April 6 | 11:00am - 12:00pm

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Opening Reception, Artist Talk + Book Signing: Melissa Ann Pinney

Friday, April 5 | 5:00pm - 8:00pm

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Melissa Ann Pinney is the author of Regarding Emma: Photographs of American Women & Girls (2003), Girl Ascending (2010) and TWO (2015). She has been awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for Photography. Pinney’s photographs are included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, San Francisco MOMA, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others.

In Their Own Light: Photographs from Chicago Public Schools is the story of young people and their exploration of identity emerging through friendships, school traditions, and mourning rituals. My five-year artist residency in Chicago Public Schools, began in a largely white elementary school and expanded to several predominantly Black and Latinx high schools. When I began this work in 2018, I had no idea of what was to come.

The project evolved and shifted as I found new opportunities to deepen connections with students even through an ongoing global pandemic, escalating racial and gender inequities and continuing gun violence. I started work on this series under the auspices of CPS Lives, a nonprofit arts organization which pairs artists with Chicago Public Schools to tell individual stories of the public school system. Bell School, located on the north side, is well-resourced and serves neighborhood, deaf and gifted students. Bell has two recess periods a day, and cell phones are prohibited, freeing the students to run, climb and make up their own games on the fly. I learned to anticipate that energy, to be open to what is ordinarily unnoticed, and look to the periphery rather than the spotlight.

In 2019, I exhibited my Bell School pictures for the first time at a local library; word of the project spread among parents and CPS administrators. As a result I was invited to document the historic merger of two racially and economically segregated schools located in the former Cabrini-Green housing area.

Chicago is a notoriously segregated city, and Evanston, where I grew up, is still equally so. Historic redlining and pervasive racism defined Evanston neighborhoods. Now, working in a school of predominantly Black students, I felt clueless, ignorant of the student’s shared history, culture, language and references. From this starting place, I knew only to return each week to get to know the students and earn their trust. Over time, I did get to know and continued to photograph a group of students who went on to the Ogden High School and graduated recently. My worldview and assumptions shaped when I grew up are challenged again and again by the students I meet.

There were technical challenges too— I wasn’t happy with the quality of my photographs. I made pictures anyway—pictures the students asked me to make as they passed in the hallways or on the playground while posing in groups of friends. After each exposure the students would gather close to view the images on the back of my camera, telling me which ones they liked and using their phones to capture the images to share with friends.

I realize that my photographing in settings where the majority of students are Black and Brown can be seen as problematic. Yet this project has a direct relationship to my earlier work, work that revolved for decades around my daughter, Emma, and themes of young people at school and play. Although the themes and events were similar, it was not my community or my child’s friends at Ogden. I had to find a different way into the work. Five years later I can say that I did find support, permission and collaboration among the students, especially the students I first met in middle school or ninth grade. Now the high school students see my work on Instagram and communicate with me by text to send them their portraits.

My work at Ogden-Jenner opened the door for me to photograph at Ogden International High School, where I worked through 2022, and at Senn High School, where my work is ongoing. By continuing to show up and offer pictures to both individual students and the schools where I’ve worked, I have been welcomed generously. Now students ask me to photograph their sports events and performances, to document their birthdays and parties. In this way I hope to acknowledge and thank those who have given so much of themselves to the project.

One of the most unexpected gifts has been realizing how much the students value the photographs. As Ogden student, Khov’ya, said, “I’m really happy you took those pictures. They might have seemed like regular days, but it’s good to look back on those moments…little memories and little moments. We just knew that you were always here, taking pictures.”

—Melissa Ann Pinney

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