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.
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.
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.
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.