By Rainer Turim
John Milisenda is a black and white film photographer from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York City. He has taught a variety of photography courses at Drexel University, The New School, Parson’s School of Design, and recently the Manny Cantor Center. His photos have been published in the Smithsonian, the New York Times, MoMA, and have been included in over 150 gallery exhibitions. He’s a current member of Con Artist Collective, an artist gallery and collective based in the Lower East Side, not far from his childhood apartment where his mother has lived her whole life. In the past five decades, John has accumulated a portfolio that primarily focuses on his family (i.e. his mother, his father, and his brother) and the Lower East Side community. John’s latest show, “Celebrating Sunset Park: Café Loré” was on display at the Brooklyn Museum last Summer. We sat down to discuss his choice of subjects, his path to photography, and his relationship to photography.
As we talk, John takes photos of me. He takes not one, but five in a matter of seconds.
Ranier Turim: What are you shooting with?
John Milisenda: Nikon F, 28mm 3.5, it’s the first 28 they made. It’s a slow one, but it’s sharp as hell.
RT: I looked at your artist statements for your past shows. When you talk in one about your family, you say how pictures don’t give an easy interpretation.
JM: Well, there’s not an easy interpretation because there are contradictory feelings in the work; they’re close, they’re all in rooms together, but they're in a sense alienated because they’re usually doing different things. They’re not focused upon one another as a family does when certain pictures are taken. So, there’s closeness and alienation; there are contradictions, there’s contrast between two different things against one another, in the same photograph. A lot of times my pictures are confused with photo documentary - and they’re not documents, because I’m not trying to resolve a dispute; a document resolves a dispute. They’re more for me like expressions of my feelings in a given moment. Like, I just did a portrait of you; this moment, I’m saving. I’m not documenting you, I’m saving a moment. But they don’t resolve disputes, so they’re not documents. There’s a big contra-distinction. So, when people see my family pictures, they were up on a website, where there’s all journalists, and they photograph like documentaries, and that’s not what I’m about, not in the least.
RT: You want to express your emotions.
JM: I want to share something that's going on in a moment to moment basis, of reflections, of feelings, of ideas, more feelings and reflections. So in a sense, in a vague way, it’s almost like a dear diary. It’s like I’m a diarist. I’m talking about my experiences. I’m saying on this day, and I date them — that’s very important to me. I date the negatives and I date the prints when I print them, so I exactly know this was done in 1980. And I can look at on September 23rd, 1980, I was here, and I experienced that — all throughout the years of my family pictures. My mom now is in a nursing home, so I was there with my brother Dennis. Dennis is developmentally disabled, and he lived in a residence of YAI, the organization that houses him. He’s high functioning, he’s like a 12-year-old, but he’s 67, soon to be 68. I photographed my mom and Dennis in the nursing home outdoors next to each other, and Dennis’s gestures are always so interesting and strange and different than a person who is not developmentally disabled; he’ll look up and have a surprised look on his face. So it’s all about his body language and gestures and how he relates to my mother, and how my mother reflects back on him. There’s this dynamic. So I continued with that and I tried different lenses out the other day; I did close-ups of my mom now that she's in this nursing home. She’s 93 and this is what happens when you’re 93: your body breaks down.
RT: You’ve said before about kind of having a diary, and about you expressing your emotions, but at the same time, some of these memories people might think are a little more private.
JM: I did a study of this because some people would look at my pictures and really look at them and sometimes identify with them. They’d see constraints of their own family. And there are two different schools there: there are the people who don’t want to look at that at all because it brings back horrible memories of their families. There are other people who find it fascinating, because it brings up memories of their family. So, it’s the individual viewing. It’s not me, it’s them. All I’m doing is I’m just telling them what I’m seeing and I’m sharing that with you. It might turn you off or you might be interested.
RT: Both responses involve some trauma, but what made you want to photograph these sensitive moments?
JM: Dennis. Dennis was developmentally disabled, and I didn’t know it. I didn’t know why I was photographing him until I went to a meeting at YAI, some 10 or 15 years ago, of siblings. And they were talking about their experience. One guy had a sister who was developmentally disabled and he was so close to her and so loving and so caring, he became a counselor working with those people — he took it that far. Everyone’s experience is different. Mine was to talk about it: What is this? What’s going on here? Why is Dennis different? My thing was to explore it all. The way I did it was through the camera.
RT: What would you call your work if it’s not documentary?
JM: I coined the term, “lyrical expressionism.” Lyrical means enthusiasm, having great enthusiasms, exuberance, wanting to get at something. Expressionism is like contacting your emotions in a given moment and having something to share in that moment — being in the moment. I never read much about photography because I thought I knew a lot. And I’ve never read much about art. But a year or two ago, I went on this trek of reading books about art and my head spun around. You know, all this stuff about impressionism and how photography came into impressionism, how the dots were motivated mostly because of war. Artists need something to talk about; they can't just be talking about shallow things, you need to have something deeper to talk about the experience being, and they need to stay there and study that thing that they choose to study, thoroughly, so it becomes a work, a lifelong work. The talk I’m going to give at Con Artist Collective on November 12th is about Eugene Smith, a man who was converted by World War II and undergoes metanoia, a mystical experience that causes you to see the other in a mystical light, so when he was on Sy Pan, he saw some really cruel battles. He covered 26 beach landings, 13 invasions, where the bombs are blowing up over there in Hiroshima and he’s right behind the soldiers when 99% of them died, he’s out there with his camera photographing, trying to get a truth — something that has integrity. He undergoes metanoia, he says these Japanese children are my children, these people are the same as me. He undergoes this change and his pictures totally change and what he pursues in his life totally changes. My talk is going to be about that juxtaposition. How does it go from that to this and what does that mean — that paradigm shift? So the artist goes through life processes, and it constantly changes. You change and your vision of life changes and your vision around you. I’m 70 now, how many years have I got left? What’s going to happen? Death is coming. What do I do with this time left?
RT: Similar to Eugene Smith’s paradigm shift, have you had a shift?
JM: A slow shift, not like him.
RT: A lot of your photographs have your brother next to your father smoking, or it’s the three of them together: your mother, your father, and Dennis. You photograph your brother in relation to your parents.
JM: I do. His gestures — he looks at keys from my mother and father. He’s responding with body language in different ways. But I find that Dennis and my mother in her nursing home don’t see each other every week like they did. He would leave his residence, go to Pitt street, stay in her apartment — they’ve lived there for 53 years and I’m about to turn in the keys maybe tomorrow. I threw away a lot of stuff. I didn’t want to cling on to the past. Here’s a diarist who doesn’t want to cling on to the past. It’s kind of a strange thing to stay. I threw away all the old pictures that my father took, and the family snapshots, so the slate is clean. I still have my work.
RT: You photographed the Lower East Side, obviously, but you were more focused on documenting your family than what people in the documentary world would photograph?
(the violence, the police riots) Why do you think you stayed away from that?
JM: I was never drawn to violence, I don’t like violence. I find it deplorable. I didn’t want to feed on it. In a sense, when you're photographing something, you're feeding on it too. We see violence all the time on the news, but what does it do? So we know about it, but what's being done about it? My own take on it is to have everyday life experience, which doesn't right now have violence in my everyday life. I’m not drawn to it. I’ll just leave it there. The artwork I like is where I have an "aha" moment.
RT: Why do you choose film in comparison to digital?
JM: Digital looked great, but it looked too much like ink on paper. Photography has this sort of kind of depth that’s incomparable, a lot like drawings — there’s a certain quality. Plus, it lasts longer and there’s nothing wrong with digital. It’s just I tried it and I could do it. I know how to work Photoshop well enough to do the things I need to do with it. I even learned how to use the GIMP, it comes with Linux.
RT: I like film too. But digital might allow more photos.
JM: With digital, you take the picture right away, you look to see if you got it. You break the continuity of flow and shooting. Like if I’m shooting something, you’re sitting a certain way and you’re leaning and I’m describing it in a picture, which is very different than the way you were sitting before, so it’s a different body language. If you're constantly shooting and you're exploring something, there’s a certain stream of consciousness that takes place in which you want to get at it with your own conscious mind to make the picture. With interesting pictures, I look at the negatives — over here nothing was happening, but over here something happened, right there in that box. It doesn’t happen often enough, but sometimes it happens. There’s a stream of consciousness that takes place when you’re unconscious mind takes over. But if you're conscious of the fact that you're taking the picture, then there’s a different emphasis in shooting and a different outcome that you get with that kind of shooting. There is a kind of shooting when you want to know what you got, and you're after something very specific, and you know that that's happening, so maybe that's where digital helps. But even there you don't want to break your chain of thought and be disrupted by the equipment. You want as little between you and what you're doing is possible to get in the way. You want it to become part of you, not egregious. I think what the digital does is it's easy. Art is not meant to be easy. If you're into it for easy, get out of art. If you're serious, if you're a really serious worker, it's not meant to be easy. It's something that takes up a good amount of your time, but you love doing it, so you don't mind spending that time doing it. Eugene Smith taught a class in 1958 at The New School called “Photography Made Difficult."
RT: Can you say who gave you your first camera? Do you remember your first camera?
JM: My dad, it was my dad’s Argus C3. He had it at the house over here on Ludlow Street, and I used to borrow it and use it. Then as I moved on, I saw the movie Top Cappy, where one of the people had a Leica — a Leica M3. When I was a teenager, I went out and bought one, and it was $90. I used to work for Lessons Coffee Service during the summer when I was in high school and you had to earn that $90. I spent it on it, and then I didn't have a lens. I just had the body. I had to go out to earn some money to get the lens, so I got a Canon lens. I got the lens for it, and boy, that lens was sharp.
RT: Alright, well, thank you.
You can search up John's work online or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org for any inquires.