A small dark patch, dead center, is the first thing that catches your eye in Melissa Ann Pinney’s photograph Mother and Attendants Dressing the Bride. Pubic hair, mundane and verboten, it’s a magnet–the thing we’re not supposed to see.

Pinney must have climbed on a chair to get this shot. The bride, standing in her bra and panty hose, is seen from above: head down, slender arms spread wide, palms turned up. Her mother kneels before her, adjusting the ceremonial garter. The allusion is unmistakable. “Christ bride,” Pinney says. “What is she redeeming?”

Since her college days, when she first learned to handle a camera, Pinney has redeemed her own experience by capturing it on film. Growing up in Evanston in the 60s, the oldest daughter in a family of eight children, she attended Catholic schools, drank in the visual richness of the church, and aspired to become a saint. Then came the falling away. For a time Pinney thought of the church as only “a crutch for people who are afraid–people who don’t want to look at anything.”

And looking was everything. Primed by a childhood in which “there were a lot of things that weren’t acknowledged” and influenced by the street photography of Robert Frank and Diane Arbus, Pinney began lifting her camera to catch the moments between formal poses, the interstices where real life is carried on. At a time when it was still relatively rare to see the work of female photographers, she began to record the lives of the women around her–friends, family, and women like the Christ bride who hired her to take their wedding photos.

“I’ve always been interested in what’s left out,” Pinney says, “what’s not supposed to be talked about or seen.” Years before images of JonBenet Ramsey hit the tabloids or an expectant Demi Moore got naked for Vanity Fair, Pinney photographed somber four-year-olds in lipstick at a party in a beauty shop and the glowing globe of a friend’s pregnant belly, bared to be admired. Those images, Beauty Salon Birthday Party and Marcy and Kevin at Seven Months Pregnant, along with the Christ bride, are among the three dozen large color prints included in Pinney’s show, “Feminine Identity,” at the Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Pinney says she “works backward,” taking the pictures and then discovering “what’s there.” Always, she says, “the pictures are richer than the things I could think of,” often imbued with a sacramental quality that comes as a surprise: a white-haired matron at a wedding dinner wears a luminous halo; two little girls mimic the rite of baptism as they bathe a doll; a child in a swimming pool seems immersed in a sheen of holy water. In My Mother’s Funeral, a daughter’s tear hangs miraculously in the foreground, a pearl in air that became visible only when the image was enlarged.

“Feminine Identity” continues at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, 600 S. Michigan, through January 10. Hours are Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday 10 to 5; Thursday 10 to 8; and Saturday noon to 5. Pinney will be on hand to talk about her work Thursday, December 4, at 2. Admission is free; call 312-663-5554. A concurrent exhibit of Pinney’s work opens Friday with a free reception from 5 to 8 at Stuart B. Baum Photography, 1415 W. Wrightwood. Call 773-528-0081 for more information. –Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Melissa Ann Pinney photo by Nathan Mandell/ “Mother and Attendants Dressing the Bride”.