Long interested in creating photo essays about stages of youth, Melissa Ann Pinney has completed a five-year artist residency in the Chicago Public Schools—this exceptional exhibition is the result of that residency. Public school kids are often the recipients of scorn and misunderstanding, but Pinney delves into the realities of their lives with warmth and understanding in this group of twenty-one color images.
This particular generation of teens have been through more than the usual challenges of urban kids. They spent the last few years studying in quarantine, missing their all-important social life as well as the highlights that make up high school—interaction with friends, prom, graduation. Isolated at home for much of the pandemic, they lacked all the things that normally make life at that age bearable. It’s no wonder teen suicides were at an all-time high during this time. Pinney’s residency also coincided with the historic merger of two segregated schools, which brought its own issues into the work—race, gender and gun violence. Pinney reached into lives very unlike her own to celebrate these kids in a way few photographers have. With this series she has shown them respect, allowed them to express themselves fully and celebrated each of them as individuals. Clearly there was a great deal of trust involved or the images would not be what they are—open, honest and noble.
In an image titled “Jump Rope, Bell School,” four young teens jump rope together. It feels like they are on the cusp, about to leap into the turmoil of high school. In “Lizzie, Senn High School,” a masked girl with vividly creative clothing stands against a turquoise wall, while a menacing shadow is cast next to her. In “William, Senn High School,” and “George, Senn High School,” these students pose for Pinney in what is for them classroom attire, and in “Jakolbi, Ogden International High School,” a young man in a tuxedo adjusts his belt and shows the heart carved into his haircut. Pinney has captured the moments of doubt, pride and angst that fight for expression in these young lives.
There’s a marvelous image titled “Ja’ Miya, Jakyra, Kennaria and Charlese, Ogden International High School” in which four lovely young women vogue for Pinney in their finest gowns, presumably for a dance or prom, and in a spectacular image “Snow Ball, Senn High School,” projected snowballs play across the students as they dance, chat, and enjoy being together in person. In another, “Arsone, Senn High School,” a masked girl spins amid balloons at a dance while other masked students look on.
The postcard image, “Jael, Ogden International High School” is perhaps the most telling—a beautiful teen with cascading braids and extensions, replete with beads, gazes at herself and simultaneously at Pinney in the mirror of the girls’ restroom. Her face is filled with all the emotions inherent to those who are trying to figure out who they are and their place in the world.
“Melissa Ann Pinney: In Their Own Light,” on view at Glass Curtain Gallery, 1104 South Wabash, on view through August 4.