If you Google “Gillian Laub”, you’ll find bodies of work like “Southern Rites” or “Girls at War”: fine-tuned portraits depicting moments of racial divide made clear through certain microcosms— a segregated prom in Georgia and a boarding school in the settlement of Ma’ale Levona, respectively. Hailed by everyone from Time to Vanity Fair, Laub is an established storyteller who sharply captures the humanity of those on the receiving end of systemic oppression.
Her latest exhibition both contrasts and mimics her former work. A Hillbilly Elegy of sorts for photography, it catalogs her family over decades, ending at the Biden campaign as she and nuclear members of her family have come into significant conflict because of stark political differences. Moments of laughter intertwined with argumentative pain define the four acts of her series, “Family Matters”. Blind recently spoke with Laub to deconstruct the emotional strain and yet familial joy she so precisely captures.
Tell us about your background, politically and photographically. How were you raised within the discourse of politics?
I grew up in Chappaqua— a suburb of New York that my parents moved to in large part because of its excellent public school system. Politics wasn’t a big focus or discussion in our home. I envied the people who had big political debates at their kitchen and dining room tables; that wasn’t us. Something about growing up in the suburbs felt very detached from the world at large, which is why I couldn’t wait to escape them after high school.
My high school photography teacher co-taught a class called “On Creating” with an English teacher, where every project focused on the relationship between words and images. For the Duane Michals project I photographed and wrote about my father, which had a huge impact on me. I still have it— my family was always my first muse.
How did you come to photography as your medium?
It sounds like a cliché, but since my grandfather gave me my first camera at the age of six I was hooked. I used to pose my friends and family all over the place. I still have those first Polaroid photos from that time.
How has your photography evolved, and how did you decide on this series?
What I care about and focus on in my work are the effects politics have on people and our communities. I’ve photographed my family from a very young age— it started more as a personal project. But as time passed, larger narratives started unfolding as I witnessed life cycles; and in the past five years it became apparent that my family was a microcosm of what so many other people were experiencing in their families throughout the country. So that’s when it became very apparent to me this was telling a larger story, not just my own family’s.
Obviously, this is an intimate portrayal of their lives. How did your family receive the idea of being put in the spotlight?
I’ve felt a great responsibility, as I always do for all the people whom I photograph and who share their stories with me. I am very lucky and grateful my family has trusted me. Yes, they saw and knew every photograph that was being published, but I think in reading the book there were some tough and triggering moments that came up.
Ultimately, though, they weren’t worried about how they were portrayed and respected my honesty. It wasn’t about their ego, they were just happy with the quality of the work. And I can say with confidence that we have had more transparent and open conversations since my family has read the book and seen the exhibition. It has enabled us to have an open channel. Nobody is looking to change anyone’s point of view anymore, but I think we all realize the importance of respecting the other and agreeing to disagree and honoring that.
I think the key isn’t about trying not to argue, but it’s about how we argue. We need to listen to each other and be respectful— we somehow lost that civil discourse. I also think it should NEVER happen on a text chain. That’s where we got into a lot of trouble because so much nuance and tone can be lost and misrepresented in a text.
Can you describe a favorite photo you have from each act, and why?
Oh goodness that is a tough one, because I am attached to so many for different reasons. I have already edited down from tens of thousands of images to less than 100 for the book… but I’ll try.
ACT I Grandma helping Grandpa out
It represents a generation, no longer here, that I miss dearly. They are boldly saying, “we worked hard for what we have earned and we will enjoy our lives.” But then there’s also Grandpa on the Beach which I chose for the cover. This man had a joie de vivre like nobody else I’ve ever met and you can feel it, hear it, as he devours his cheeseburger. I can still hear him moaning with delight.
Act II Grandma’s kitchen
Details are everything and here there are so many— the half-eaten sandwich, the look on Dorothy’s face, her hand gesture, the light coming in through the window on my grandmother’s face, her expression, the television screen, the placemats, the Formica kitchen that brings back so many memories of childhood. Or the image of my grandmother alone in her bathroom, asleep in her wheelchair, with a morning show on and her shoe halfway on. This photo always pierces right through my heart.
ACT III Shiloh and Izzi with my parents
I love the tenderness between my father and Izzi, juxtaposed with my mom watching Shiloh as she looks straight at me (trying to seem older than she is). I want to know what everyone’s thinking and feeling in this.
ACT IV My quarantine Birthday
This brings me right back to April 2020. It feels historically poignant at the beginning of the pandemic; but it also signifies unconditional love and longing that moves me every time I look at it. I will never forget my parents driving hours on my birthday just to bring a cake and see us through a window.
Ultimately, how do you hope people will receive this series?
I know my family is very specific, but one can only hope the work resonates with other people by showing the complexities and finding common ground. I know of so many families that have become divided because of the past years, so I do hope this work can be used to help bridge gaps and create conversations that have been very difficult to have with our loved ones.
The other day an amazing thing happened while I was at ICP. A father brought his twenty-year-old son to the show and, at the end, they approached me asking if I was the artist. The son was very emotional, and it turns out their relationship had been very strained the past few years because of their different political views. The father wanted to take his son to the show to help show him he wasn’t alone.
By Abigail Glasgow
Abigail Glasgow is writer based in New York, USA, and storyteller who believes in providing a platform for marginalized groups and individuals who have been historically and systemically excluded from opportunity.
“Family Matters”, by Gillian Laub is on view until january 10, 2022 at International Center of Photography, 79 Essex Street, New York, NY 10002.