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“My Family,” John Milisenda at Stephen Cohen Gallery

The Human Family

Like Whitman’s explorations of a San Francisco strip club, John Milisenda records a another kind of hidden world, but where Whitman spent six months, Milisenda spent thirty years.  His exhibition “My Family” at the Robert Cohen Gallery adds to a tradition of documentary photography that might be called “Life as We Live it in the Twentieth Century.” Since Milisenda first picked up a camera as a teenager he has unflinchingly photographed his home life and family interactions.  The project takes on special meaning and importance because in the course of recording the daily lives of his parents and a brother he has created a penetrating visual story of one family’s decision to keep a retarded son at home.

Milisenda says that his brother Dennis was deprived of oxygen at birth during a delayed delivery. Undoubtedly, forty years ago there was pressure to institutionalize this child.  For whatever the circumstances the boy was kept at home and melded into the fabric of community and family life.  Milisenda’s long essay of their lives together is a testament to both the love for this child, and the lovingness of the child. His work records what is possible for this little regarded population - the retarded and the family members who must care for them. Reminiscent of Gramps, the Jury brothers tender documentary of their grandfather’s decline into senility, Milisenda’s  decades long essay opens up a private world, warts and all. We witness his father grow old, become ill and die. In one photograph his father sits on a plastic covered couch and breaths with the help of tubes in his nose.  In another he places an affectionate hand on his son’s head while the mother, in classic fluffy slippers and housedress reads a paper over coffee at the kitchen table, the clock ticking on a wall in the background.  It is these most ordinary of scenes, repeated in a hundred ways over many years that form the essence of a life, and the substance of this powerful body of work. 

As the pictures progress chronologically (they are all titled with dates,) we wonder who will look after Dennis. In a recent photograph we see him trailing just behind his now elderly mother, her shoulders deeply bowed, her shock of dark hair gone gray, Dennis a yard away walking with the same bent over gesture as though he too has reached old age with his mother. Mother and son are alone now, absent the constant presence of the father and husband so visible in all the other images.  The bond they share is tangible.

Milisenda’s work challenges us to face our fears, prejudices, and revulsion towards those who don’t look or behave like us. His contribution has been to help us empathize and understand the transcendence of their struggle. There is no handsome coffee table book to accompany this exhibition, but there should be.


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