John Pinderhughes Biography
New York-based photographer John Pinderhughes has combined careers in advertising and fine art photography. His commercial work includes advertising campaigns for major corporations while his fine art has developed quite separately. Pinderhughes is known for expansive landscapes and pictures that explore the relationship between people and their environment, traditions, and points of view. Although he describes himself as "primarily self-taught," his photographs display a deep understanding of light, shape, and form. His work has been exhibited at many galleries, including New York City's Museum of Modern Art and The Studio Museum in Harlem, and has appeared in several books, including Barbara Millstein's Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers (2001). He has published several books of his own, including cookbooks and children's books.
John Pinderhughes was born on January 28, 1946, in Washington, D.C. He was raised in Alabama and New Jersey, where he attended Montclair High School before going on to Howard University to major in marketing. Though he attended from 1964 to 1968, Pinderhughes did not complete his degree, dropping out in his senior year to take up photography. He later attended the WNET Film and Television Training School in 1971 and 1972.
Pinderhughes was introduced to photography while on Operation Crossroads Africa between his sophomore and junior years at college. He worked mostly in Ethiopia, where he helped to build a school, but spent time taking photographs of the landscape and people with a camera borrowed from another member of the group. Pinderhughes recalls being smitten by photography almost at once, but the trip was formative in other ways too. Unlike the other volunteers Pinderhughes refused to eat Western food, opting instead to eat in local bars and making lots of friends; his interest in food and his heritage resurfaced with the publication of his 1990 cookbook Family of the Spirit, in which he recorded recipes handed down from his grandmothers and other loved ones.
Returning to the United States, Pinderhughes photographed anti-war and civil rights protests at Howard University and began taking portraits to earn some money, learning how to use the camera as he went along. In 1969 he contributed photographs to a book, Centennial Plus One: A Photographic and Narrative Account of the Black Student Revolution, Howard University, 1964-1968. By the early 1970s he was gaining experience working in graphics departments at publisher McGraw Hill and Cowles Communications, publisher of Venture Magazine. It was while working for Cowles Communications doing "paste-ups and mechanicals"—setting up magazine pages for printing—that art director Tom Huestis encouraged him to help out with photographic jobs. He also became friendly with the "lab guy" at Look Magazine and spent time there learning the technical aspects of the craft from professional photographers who saw him as "just a black kid" and therefore no threat.
Unlike most photographers who focus on one particular type of photography, Pinderhughes enjoys two careers running alongside one another. On the one hand he is a highly successful, award-winning commercial photographer, one who has worked on advertising campaigns for big clients such as McDonald's, Miller beer, Equitable Life Insurance, and the United States Army. And on the other he is a fine art photographer whose thoughtful, cool, carefully crafted images have been exhibited continuously since the early 1970s. Such achievements in fields that few photographers manage to combine is highly unusual, but in fact the way he works—he told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB) that he likes to be working on two or three things at the same time—might actually be the key to his success.
Pinderhughes told Patsy Southgate in 1997 that he specializes in "warm and fuzzy" in his commercial advertising work, but as with his art images he plans each shot meticulously. For example he explained to CBB that when photographing landscapes he keeps maps of the areas he is interested in photographing, keeping a diary of the way light changes at different times and going back repeatedly to exactly the same spot to capture the image he wants. And light is the key to his fine art work. Pinderhughes described his fascination with "the way light falls on line and delineates line," explaining that the photographer's job is to "make [light] reveal itself." He is also interested in making the viewer work to understand or interpret his images; despite the careful planning and deliberate attempts to achieve a given effect, he would prefer his audience to figure it out for themselves.
Fascinated by people and their relationship to the past, culture, and the natural world, Pinderhughes has been called a "people photographer." One of his most successful exhibitions, at the Museum of Modern Art in 1991, consisted of a series of portraits of old people. A passionate cook, he has also explored these relationships in the two cookbooks he published in 1990 and 2003, using recipes handed down by his grandmothers and other family members and friends. He has also collaborated on children's books and is involved with the Nature Conservancy, an organization that favors a non-confrontational approach to environmental issues. Pinderhughes's work with the Nature Conservancy combines his love of the sea with a passion for conserving the natural world for his children and their children. He told CBB that he had come to realize that in terms of conservation we hold the future in our own hands: "If you don't think about [nature conservancy] other people will make the wrong decisions." This intensity seems to run through his work too. When asked what he most enjoyed about photography he likened his relationship with the camera to love: "When you are in love with a woman how do you say why you love her?"
Dry Bones & Burnt Offerings, Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York City, 1990.
One Photographer's View, AT&T, Holmdel, NJ, 1993.
A Celebration of Nature, Holland & Holland, New York City, 1999.
John Pinderhughes: Soliloquies, Sherry Washington Gallery, Detroit, MI, 2000.
Majestic Vista: The Landscape of Eastern Long Island, June Kelly Gallery, New York City, 2000.
The Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort, Museum of Modern Art; New York City, 1991.
Jazz Plus / Kamoinge, UFA Gallery, New York City, 1999.
Reflections In Black: A History of African American Photographers 1840 to Present, Arts & Industries Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 2000.
Committed To The Image: A Half Century Of Black Photographers In America, Brooklyn Museum Of Art, Brooklyn, New York City, 2001.
(With Vanessa Howard) A Screaming Whisper, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972.
Family of the Spirit: Recipes and Remembrances from African American Kitchens, Simon & Schuster, 1990.
Hurt No Living Thing, McClanahan Book Company, 1999.
The Golden Rule …And Other Words to Live By, McClanahan Book Company, 1999.
(With Harriette Cole) Coming Together: Celebrations for African American Families, Jump At The Sun / Hyperion, 2003.
(With John Carafoli) "Thanksgiving …With All the Fixings," New Choices Magazine November 1991.
Millstein, Barbara, Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers, W.W. Norton & Co., 2001.
East Hampton Star (East Hampton, NY), October 9, 1997.
Additional material for this profile was obtained through an interview with John Pinderhughes on September 14, 2004, and from documents kindly supplied by him.
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