Man of Snakes, Baby Photos and Adventure, Is Dead at 98
By Douglas Martin
Published: August 21, 2010 in the New York Times
At 17, he was living with natives in the South American jungle and, like them, wore a loincloth, got traditional tattoos, ate monkey and danced with the gods. He fell in love with a beautiful young woman, Mina, who reciprocated. They married. She soon died of malaria, and the young man pondered suicide.
This is not a wildly atypical episode in the decidedly atypical life of Roy Pinney, who survived his youthful depression to live to be four days short of 99. He died of a stroke on Aug. 9 in Manhattan, his daughter Sara Bowman said.
The New York Sun in 1946 described Mr. Pinney as “a hard man to pin down” because of his myriad achievements. Truth to tell, he was just getting started.
He became a nationally acclaimed baby photographer, wrote two dozen books on subjects like caves and biblical animals, helped create the genre of television nature shows and survived to be one of the last journalists to have covered the Normandy invasion, in which he was wounded.
Other distinctions include making more than 160 expeditions to exotic locales, winning a prize for a short movie at a film festival in Cannes in 1963 and having a photograph exhibited at the Guggenheim in a 2004 show that included images by Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Many snakes, including some he took to grandchildren’s birthday parties, may or may not survive him. He gave them away after his first stroke several years ago. Since bagging a venomous snake as a 12-year-old Boy Scout, he caught more than 1,000 — some less than an hour from Times Square and some in the deepest wilderness — and always kept the best for himself.
The New York Herald Tribune in 1933 reported that he evaded eviction from his Greenwich Village apartment by moving out first — hardly big news, were it not for the 30 or so serpents accompanying him. He told The Tribune he feared that marshals evicting him might harm his reptiles.
“You see, they’re not all in cases,” he explained, before interrupting the interview for a brief frolic with a six-foot rattlesnake. “I give them the run of the place. Some of them sleep on my pillow at night. The anaconda hangs out in the bathtub.”
Almost six decades later, Mr. Pinney was living in a Midtown apartment with other scaly suspects. As a reporter for The New York Times interviewed him, two king snakes each swallowed a squealing pink baby mouse. Asked if any current roommates were poisonous, Mr. Pinney, a past president of the New York Herpetological Society, hesitated.
“You’re not allowed to keep venomous reptiles in New York,” he said. “I have to answer your question that way.”
Pinyehrae Schiffer was born on the Lower East Side on Aug. 13, 1911, to Jewish immigrants from Poland who ran a grocery. He later Americanized his name.
As a young boy, he rescued injured birds from urban sidewalks. As a teenager, he worked summers as an assistant curator of entomology at the Brooklyn Museum, which then included natural history. He lost an essay contest whose prize was a wildlife moviemaking trip to Africa, but the University of Oxford accepted him for an expedition to British Guiana, the South American country now called Guyana.
The Oxford group already had an entomologist. It invited him as a photographer. Mr. Pinney had never taken a picture, but a Brooklyn news photographer taught him the basics, including how to set off a powder flash for night shots.
Thus did Mr. Pinney meet Mina and have his first experience living with a tribal people, something he would do 30 more times. He took a course at Columbia University with Franz Boas, the father of modern anthropology. It was his sole brush with higher education.
He worked as a photographer and reporter for The Daily News for eight years, then received assignments from magazines like Life. He covered D-Day for Liberty Magazine. He won four major photo contests in a row after noticing that shots of pretty girls, puppies and babies were consistent winners.
He chose babies, and in a contest by Popular Photography Magazine beat out 48,000 others to win a new Packard convertible. He did it by capturing an unusual expression on a baby’s face after offering the youngster freshly squeezed lemon juice.
He went on to start his own agency to sell stock photos, set up a company for magazine photographers to learn to shoot film for television and work as a producer and cameraman with stars of early wildlife shows like Ivan T. Sanderson, Marlin Perkins and Lorne Greene.
Mr. Pinney and his wife, the former Doris Bertelsen, who also was a photographer, combined still shots of one of their sons, Roy Jr., as he grew up to make a memorable 60-second commercial for Kodak, “Turn Around, Boys,” which won an award at a festival in Cannes. After their bitter divorce in 1971, he threw away his cameras.
Besides his daughter Sara, he is survived by his companion, Emily Geltman; two other daughters, Maria Lewis and Jackie Owens; two sons, Roy Jr. and Tor; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
When Mr. Pinney was 80 he received a call from Ms. Geltman, who saw his name in a phone book and remembered taking motorcycle rides with him when they were teenagers. She was prepared to hang up if a woman answered. Over two decades, they traveled together to many exotic places. But when they went to Guyana to look for Mina’s tribe, they found no one.