Pinney’s research has ranged over the cosmology of industrialism and modernity, colonialism and photography, popular Indian visual culture (including film and chromolithography), Indian studio photography, and the more general field of Visual Anthropology. His doctoral research was concerned with transformations contingent on changing work regimes among industrial workers in central India. This was based on 15 months field research in an industrial town and nearby village and this location has remained the empirical focus of his work on other topics within South Asian anthropology and visual culture.
Subsequently he worked on archival photography, investigating the role of image-making within early anthropological practice. This was made possible by a post-doctoral Smuts Research Fellowship at the University of Cambridge. He then conducted further field research in central India on popular visual culture, including photography and devotional imagery. The work on popular studio photography was published as Camera Indica in 1997. As well as fieldwork at a village level looking at patterns of consumption he also worked extensively in archives in India, the UK and the USA researching the history of Hindu chromolithography. In addition to assembling, for the first time, a history of this genre covering the period 1878-2000, this project has also explored the question of the inappropriateness of European aesthetics for an Indian History of Art, arguing instead for a more "ethnosociological" and phenomenological approach. This project was published in book form with the title Photos of the Gods .
He conducted further research (in India, the UK, and the USA) into aspects of early photography in India in preparation for the Panizzi Lectures at the British Library in 2006. Titled "The Coming of Photography in India" this explored the relevance of print-based historiography for a visual technology such as photography and developed a “technomaterial” theory of photography. These lectures were published as a book in 2008.
Research on anthropologists’ relationship to photography from the mid-nineteenth century to the present is the subject of Photography and Anthropology, and an exhibition of an important 1970s-80s central Indian photographic studio was presented as part of Delhi Photofest 2013 with an accompanying publication, Artisan Camera: Studio Photography from Central India.
Alongside India-centric projects Pinney has also researched and published on material culture and global flows (“Creole Europe”), theoretical approaches to materiality (“Things Happen” and “Automonster”) and undertaken speculative exercises in disciplinary science-fiction (“Future Travel” and “Anthropology in the New Millennium”).
Anthropological approaches to photography are at the centre of his ERC Advanced grant "PHOTODEMOS: Citizens of Photography" which will be the central focus of his activities in 2016-2020. This will involve fieldwork in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, and the direction of a team of researchers working in Nicaragua, Nigeria, Greece, Sri Lanka and Cambodia.
Current book projects include:
The Waterless Sea: A World History of Mirages. A study of mirages and anomalous visual perception in situations of cultural stress and dislocation. This should appear in 2017.
Lessons from Hell: Printing and Punishment in India. A study of pedagogic images of punishments in hell from 1880-2000. This is a ‘visual history’ of punishment in ‘Hindu’ hell. It examines questions of cross-media transformations(from manuscript traditions to mass-produced prints) and the relationship between cosmological and governmentalist idioms of obedience. The transgressions which provoke punishment codify a caste-based moral order and the transformations in representation provide the raw data for a history of changing idioms of power. The book also incorporates recent ethnographic research on the consequences of action, and a detailed reading with a village priest of the Garuda Purana, the chief textual codification of punishment.
An ongoing project is concerned with the semiotics of resistance in India (initially funded by a British Academy award “Power from Below”). Historically and ethnographically based, it contrasts hierarchical modes of the transmission of legitimacy within an idiom of shruti (what was heard), with a generative subaltern visual practice of prakatan (manifestation). The ethnographic focus of this project concerns Dalit shamanism in central India and the political potential of visual form and excess.