review originally published in Phroom Magazine
I found Milky Way by Vincent Ferrane the first day of the NYABF and returned to it the second, enduring the brutal heat of the tiny room to look again. Three days of looking and I couldn’t buy a thing—I looked and looked, connecting with little. But for that book I stood in the stifling room filled with fetid bodies and looked again. There was something restful in those images of a woman breastfeeding her child, but also agitating, some kind of insecurity. I figured it was my own intimidation by such an untouchable level of feminine maternal beauty.
Months later a friend brought a copy to my house to show me. He is not a photobook person, and I am confused as to why he has it. It’s a gift from a long distance love, he tells me, the composition and color pallet of the photographs are a match to her abstract paintings. I think of him and the book and draw a connection to his predilection for raw, romantic images of beautiful women and fascination with degrees and modes of intimacy. These are the cornerstones of this work. Entirely without glamour, the images are most immediately fixated on the joint beauty of the woman depicted (Ferrane’s wife) and the act of nourishing her child that preoccupies her. These are layered foundational intimacies.
To look at this book is to look at her. Her beauty is unrelenting and unspoiled by the flash that at times lights her in ridged harshness. The myriad configurations of her body and the baby’s both evoke Madonnas and deny them, the child at times just a tiny foot hanging over her lap. Outdoor views punctuate the gridded images of nighttime feedings and all are notable in their domestic ordinariness. The frequent rectilinear balance of the spaces surrounding the subjects are compositionally both sculptural and painterly. You can feel that Ferrane frequently shoots fashion.
Admiration overtakes my own insecurity, yet something remains. You can look at these images and focus on breastfeeding as a topic, strangely political in the shame put on the female body, the wide cultural demarcation of breasts as unquestionably sexual, the act of feeding a child becoming improper. Through this lens the images celebrate breastfeeding, but the tension I sense does not seem related to this. Milk drips from her nipple in close-up. She reclines in the bath, eyes closed. Our Madonna looks off into middle distance, she focuses on the task of holding her child to her breast. Her eyes squeeze closed in a pained wince of sleeplessness. Her gaze never once meets the camera.
I imagine that this partnered act of photo-making between Ferrane and his wife is part of the cadence of their marriage. She breaks concentration for a phone call, other static necessitates, but never for him. The lack of eye contact keeps the intimacy within the pairing of mother and child. The viewer, by proxy of the photographer/father, is undeniably outsider. In one image the piercing blue eye of the baby acknowledges the photographer as party, but offers no entry. The powerful connection is merely observed.
We call the trail of stars in the sky the Milky Way because of a Greek myth, the creation of our universe the unintentional spurt of milk from Hera’s breast as she pushed away the infant Heracles. In one version of this story, Zeus sneaks his mortal-born son to the breast of his divine wife while she is sleeping, allowing the child to suckle and attain the godlike attributes given by her milk. The metaphor is tempting; man takes control over a power inherently feminine, using her to create something he cannot himself. But in this book, the mother’s lack of gaze does not imply lack of consent and the photographic act proves to be one of participation. He is present for all these events, the nursing in transit, the excruciating nighttime feedings. I register a certain basal longing; the camera a way of relating to a connection that by physical necessity belongs to mother and child alone. I am aware of my own participation in the nested intimacies of witness. But she is what I will most remember in her active motherhood, child and document both, ultimately, her creation.