“Two,” photographs by Melissa Ann Pinney. Introduction and edited by Ann Patchett. With essays by Billy Collins, Edwidge Danticat, Elizabeth Gilbert, Allan Gurganus, Jane Hamilton, Barbara Kingsolver, Elizabeth McCracken, Maile Meloy, Susan Orlean, Richard Russo. Harper Design, New York, 2015. 208 pages. $29.99.

Rarely do we get a chance to quietly sit and think about something as simple yet profound as what “two” means to us.

In a new book of photographs and essays, we can take the time to get lost in the whole, huge idea of “two.” Husband and wife. Twins. Best friends forever. Spooning. Partnership. Invincibility. Fearlessness. It’s an idea. A way of looking at things. A feeling. And more.

Photographer Melissa Ann Pinney told her friend, author Ann Patchett, that she was thinking of putting together a new book of photography with “two” as the theme. Patchett and 10 authors she approached wrote short pieces about “two” for the book. Together the essays and the photographs make a thoughtful, beautiful presentation to be taken in, little by little.

The photographs are contemporary. Many of the photos catch a moment in a scene that feels quietly potent. When Pinney does show us faces, they are camera conscious at least half the time, but unrehearsed. Pinney and her camera have found a way to eavesdrop.

Sometimes two people will pose outright, but even then they are full of their individuality. Since this is “two,” they display something more because of the connection they’re involved with, as is the case of the two women in bathing suits in a tropical surf (p. 165). Perhaps the one with the narrowed eyes is feeling protective of the other. If so, why? And why at that moment, when everything is tranquil turquoise?

I like the photographs of the children and teenagers, so often engaged with each other in displays of soft yet interested caring (p. 197), playful antics (p. 159) or friendships growing fast (p.73). These lovely interactions in golden light might be the very moments these youthful companions will later recall as representative of their childhoods.

Pinney often appears to be little more than onlooker. She isn’t afraid to seemingly walk onto something that is going on. Of course something is happening but we can’t imagine what since the pair’s backs are what we see.

We look at the set of the shoulders (p. 71), the direction of the gaze, the way the pants are rolled up so the two men can wade in the surf, their planted stance, their hands in roomy pockets, the way they’ve fastened their suspenders that echoes the width of their stances. The story is in these details.

Sometimes people touch each other purposefully, protectively. Sometimes the touch looks like an afterthought. In some photos, at first glance, “two” is little more than abstraction. Very little seems remarkable because, generally, Pinney is interested in the moment rather than technical wizardry or perfect light. Taken as a whole, the photos are rich in authentic, memorable Americana.

As Ann Patchett writes in her introduction, solitude underlies everything here. She can relate because writers understand and perform in solitude. So often, in these photographic pairings, each individual radiates self as if “two” enhances “one.”

But as we all know, “two” is a fragile and fleeting thing. Is it vulnerability we see or do we infer it? The book’s first photo is of a young girl in tulle, drawing in dirt. She is alone with her shadow, with her busy and creative self.

Each essay demonstrates exactly why these authors have risen to the top. The pieces are short, brilliant contributions that expand our thinking about “two” at the same time that they captivate us with the storytelling.

“The Pair” by Barbara Kingsolver is excruciating. Her parents are so involved with each other that, among their boxes of photos, there isn’t a single photo of their children. “If we should open a door and happen upon these two, we know to be still, breathe carefully. Step quietly out of the room.”
Susan Orlean writes about a pair of chickens that bonded and remained inseparable. Elizabeth McCracken writes about her mother and her mother’s twin sister. They are fraternal twins, look nothing alike and have almost nothing in common except a need for each other.
We know that “two” is often a source of some degree of dismay. In Jane Hamilton’s “Aren’t We a Pair,” she writes about the summer guest she was expected to pair up with for two weeks. They were both girls, aged 10, but there was no common ground.

Billy Collins gives us a lovely poem about the odd, incomprehensible, internal workings that motivate us and Elizabeth Gilbert writes about the editor who is essential to her work. In “Two Hands and Two Feet,” Edwidge Danticat writes beautifully and evocatively about the intimate church ritual of washing each other’s feet.

“Two” is a pleasure to read, view and contemplate. It is also a tribute to creative bookmaking. This combination of image and essay on thick white paper and bound together to form a squat, pleasing rectangle that we can enter and leave as we please, is a fine use of the medium.

Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at rae.francoeur@gmail.com. Read her blog at
freefallrae.blogspot.com or follow her on Twitter: @RaeAF.