Surviving the Holiday Season With Gillian Laub’s “Family Matters”
For Gillian Laub, division is a fixation. But it’s the contradictions and complexities of the human character, rather than a taste for strife and conflict, that motivates the New York-born photographer. Over a 15-year year career that began with Testimony—her 2007 monograph of portraits of Israeli Arabs and Jews, Lebanese and Palestinians—Laub has garnered a reputation for slicing through layers of social scar tissue to expose our culture’s most entrenched conflicts. Her second monograph, Southern Rites, followed in 2015, after the photographer spent a decade traveling the Deep South and documenting segregated proms. But for all the visceral honesty of Laub’s previous projects, it is Family Matters—the photographer’s latest monograph exploring her fraught relationship with her formerly-apolitical-turned-avidly-pro-Trump family—that is perhaps her most immersive yet.
Family Matters—on view at New York’s International Center of Photography through January 10—features an array of lush snapshots of Laub’s tight-knit family in all their sprawling, spray-tanned, bejeweled, and boisterous glory. Taken over a span of twenty years, the images reveal a uniquely American blend of panache, exuberance, and consumer excess that inspires shock and awe in equal measure.
The photographs, each accompanied by Laub’s reflections on the family members and moments depicted, take on an ominous tone in the monograph’s third act, which features images captured around the 2016 presidential election. All of a sudden, Make America Great Again merchandise creeps into the family uniform of cheetah print Speedos, sky-high blowouts, and sumptuous diamonds. Accompanying these photographs is Laub’s blisteringly honest account of her struggle to reconcile her deep dedication to her family with her horror at their political beliefs. In the wake of the holiday season, and to mark the show’s final week at the ICP, Laub sat down with Interview to reflect on Family Matters.
INTERVIEW: Have you ever captured an image and that you later regretted?
GILLIAN LAUB: I have never regretted capturing an image, but there are plenty of times when I missed capturing important moments and I’ve lost sleep over it. That is not unusual and definitely something I tend to obsess over.
INTERVIEW: Tell us about an image that didn’t make it into the book.
LAUB: There is an image of my daughters in the bathtub that was very meaningful to me. I made it in the beginning of the pandemic and felt that it really marked that moment in time—the intimacy, but also the intensity and tension. My editor at Aperture thought that the nudity in the photograph would attract unnecessary attention. Aperture publishes the work of photographers like Sally Mann, so it’s clear they stand by artists’ decisions, but my editor felt that in this case, one image risked detracting from the larger narrative. So, we compromised: I converted the photograph into a polaroid, and cropped it so you only see their faces.
INTERVIEW: How did your family react to the project?
LAUB: Everyone in the family had their own anxieties of how they would be portrayed. I was very nervous about how they would respond. When I got an advance hard copy of the book I went straight to my parents, so that I could sit down with them as they read it. They went through it from cover to cover, and it takes about an hour to read. It was intense. There was a lot of laughing and crying. My father was the most comfortable with it, because above all he respected how honest I was. I think there were things in the book that were more difficult for my mom, but it also opened up a deeper dialogue between us than we’d ever had before. My brother-in-law was not very comfortable with it and felt it was very clearly my version of our family story. He wasn’t wrong—it was definitely a representation my experience, and how I chose to share it.
INTERVIEW: Was there anything a family member told you as you were preparing to publish that stuck with you, gave you pause, or gave you encouragement?
LAUB: I didn’t share any of the text with my family before publishing the book. I didn’t want to be swayed by their creative input and I needed to listen to my own gut and voice clearly. I did have my parents’ best friend, who is in the book as well, read drafts because I knew she could be objective and honest with me. I was encouraged by the generosity and trust my family gave me in allowing me to publish this without allowing them to see it beforehand.
INTERVIEW: Was there a particular image that you had to work hard to convince a family member to let you include in the book?
LAUB: Although I didn’t let my family read the text beforehand publication, I shared all the images that I wanted to include with them. There was one image that my nephew asked me not to publish because he wasn’t comfortable with it. There was no convincing him otherwise. I was very disappointed, but respected his wishes, of course.
INTERVIEW: Is there a question about this project that you wish you were asked more often?
LAUB: That’s a good question! Because I am obsessed with process, I am sometimes surprised that people don’t ask about what it’s like to spend twenty years working on a project. The questions I receive are more focused on the Trump years, which of course I completely get and understand as well. That part does often take a lot of the oxygen out of the room.
INTERVIEW: Has the project taken on a new tone for you during its time in the public eye? Are you surprised by the aspects of the series that resonate with people?
LAUB: I was filled with fear and trepidation before it came out. I do have a sense of relief now that it’s been out in the world and people seem to resonate with the work. That has been the most gratifying thing…to make something that other people connect with. From the feedback I’ve received, it seems like there is something for everyone in this project. I worried that my family wouldn’t be relatable to people, but I’ve discovered, thankfully, that the opposite is true. All people and families are filled with complexity.