Boulder photographer Joanna Pinneo has come full circle. First attracted to her medium on a college study trip to Spain, Pinneo came back to the States, took up the camera and traveled the world, capturing masterfully beautiful and humanistic images from the four corners of the planet. Those images appear regularly in a number of high-profile publications, including National Geographic.
Now Pinneo's doing something different, right in her own backyard. The onetime Eisie Award winner remains stateside these days, in the midst of a distinctly American work called "Adjusting the Image, Girls Coming of Age." A handpicked retrospective of Pinneo's works from this and other career phases, titled Guardians of Memory: Honoring the Lives of Ordinary People Around the World, is on display through May 16 at the Louisville Center for the Arts.
Here or abroad, Pinneo's guiding force as a photographer is psychology, once her college major. "I'd always been fascinated by human behavior--why people do what they do," she says. "And as an artist, suddenly I found the medium. Suddenly, a camera was the right tool." She first went overseas as a photographer for the Baptist Foreign Mission Board, eventually landing everywhere from Calcutta to Peru wearing various journalistic shoes. But in the back of her mind, the culture from which she'd come always lurked in stark juxtaposition to the strange, new ones she encountered worldwide. While working in the West Bank on a story about Palestinians, Pinneo recalls, "there were people getting shot at, and then I'd come back to the hotel and turn on CNN, and there's Jeffrey Dahmer putting people in his refrigerator--in Milwaukee." It got her thinking about what's unique about the American perspective.
"I wanted to look at my own culture--to do something I hadn't done before." Inspired during a 1993 visit with her niece, then twelve or thirteen, she became interested in the fleeting transitions undergone by girls on the brink of adolescence. "I feel for these girls," she says. "I wanted to do something that the girls could really use."
That "something" is more than Pinneo's isolated point of view. As a documentary photographer, she relies on research and preparedness. "I'm kind of a visual anthropologist," she notes. "You have to know why you're there and know why it's important. Then you just observe." Knowing when to press the shutter is the product of what Pinneo calls her "hanging-out ability." She adds: "One interesting thing about photography that's been good for me is it requires you to be fully present. When I'm working, I see things I'd never see otherwise: People become so beautiful--the textures, the light, the expressions, the body language. I like still photography more than moving pictures, because I'm fascinated by this captured millisecond in time. There'll never be another second like that, before or since. The difference between a good photograph and a great one is just a millimeter."
What leap of faith helps Pinneo pin down that millisecond? "It's just experience," she admits, adding that even the most experienced eye can't prepare you for your final product: "I still look at my contact sheets with great trepidation."
Guardians of Memory: Honoring the Lives of Ordinary People Around the World, through May 16, Louisville Center for the Arts, 801 Grant Street, Louisville. Slide lecture with the photographer, 7 p.m. Thursday, May 6.