Museum  December 21, 2021  Ilana Novick

Gillian Laub Captures Sad Yet Familiar Familial Fracturing at ICP

© Gillian Laub

Gillian Laub, Mom and Dad with the wedding planner, 2008.

“Look at those vulgar women in their fancy fur coats,” one of Gillian Laub’s photography classmates sneered during a smoke break. Laub nodded in agreement, that is, until the group excitedly rushed toward her. It was her mother, her grandmother, and her Aunt Phyllis with their Wednesday art appreciation group, thrilled at the chance encounter.

Laub recalls the moment in the audio section of Family Matters, now on view at the International Center of Photography (ICP) through January 10, that combines audio, text, and twenty years of family photographs. The moment encapsulates Laub’s simultaneous deep affection for her family and her discomfort with their excessive displays of wealth, and later, her confusion and anger when they become Trump supporters.

We meet some of those women in Grandpa helping grandma out (1999), which features Laub’s grandmother and her aunt, who, despite being the recipient of some of the most glorious golden hour light, look like the two least impressed women in the world. They stare blank-faced at the camera. Her grandmother, in the car, wears a white fur, while her aunt, standing to the right of the frame, wears a black one with a pink top. Their imperiousness belies a more complicated history.

© Gillian Laub.

Gillian Laub, Grandpa helping Grandma out, 1999.

The Yasgurs, her mother’s family, fled antisemitism in Eastern Europe for America, and built a successful real estate business, settling in Chappaqua, NY. To them, as Laub explains in the audio, they were simply enjoying their hard-won success. The exhibit begins as a personal reckoning with Laub’s family’s wealth, but as 2016 approaches, it becomes something more universal, a stand-in for so many divided families who wondered whether their bonds would survive Trump’s influence.

Her family gave her wide latitude to photograph them, and the results are remarkably non-judgemental. Very little is staged or posed. Laub’s camera is observant but unobtrusive; her work strikes a balance between skepticism and affection.

The first half of the exhibit is more joyous and loving, featuring a large cast of loving family members celebrating bar mitzvahs, brises, and even Grandpa in his vegetable garden (1999), where her grandfather Irving, in a tight zebra print swimsuit and sunglasses, leans proudly on his fence. His prideful smile beams almost as brightly as his tan against the backdrop of the garden’s tall, lush greenery.

We see them at Thanksgiving, in Dad Carving the Turkey (2004), with two giant, glistening turkeys and grandparents looking on hungrily. In My cousin Jamie with captive audience (2013), her cousin dances in a room filled with expensive rugs and gold-framed pictures, and a leopard print bench that looks better suited for decoration and admiration than comfortable seating.

© Gillian Laub.

Gillian Laub, My cousin Jamie with captive audience, 2003. 

The color and that loving energy fade as the older generation passes away and—especially around June 2016—when her parents, sister, brother-in-law, and other extended family become ardent Trump supporters, shocking Laub, who assumed her family would never be swayed by xenophobia. Her mother’s living room is adorned with a "Women for Trump" sign. These photos are noticeably darker, browner, and grayer. Her father plays golf wearing a Make America Great Again Hat. In Mom After Yoga (2020), her Mom lies on the floor next to Trump’s face on the television, as if he’s guiding her yoga practice.

© Gillian Laub.

Gillian Laub, Mom after yoga, 2020.

One of the most upsetting but effective parts of the exhibit isn’t a photograph at all but a series of text messages scrolling on a tablet, a group text of both sides accusing the other of hating America, of being disloyal and brainwashed, sprinkled with I love yous and pleas, mostly from the Trump supporters, to remember that they’re still a family. In My Quarantine Birthday (2020), her parents stand outside Laub’s glass door, masked, bearing cake and presents. The same people who were accusing her of being brainwashed by the liberal media showed up to celebrate her birthday, from a distance, and Laub struggles to hold both versions of her family in her heart.

© Gillian Laub.

Gillian Laub, My quarantine birthday, 2020.

These mixed feelings will be all too familiar to a lot of us as the holidays approach and social media floods with photos of overflowing tables, hugs, and captions about the importance of togetherness and love. Whether or not they’re staged, whether or not there were fierce fights before the flash went off, it’s hard to take when the pictures don’t match your reality.

Laub’s isn’t the only family sorting through the wreckage of two brutal elections and an ongoing global pandemic. Her family won’t provide a break from your own. Still, time with them will be a reminder that you’re not alone, in whatever combination of feelings you’re carrying through the end of this year.

About the Author

Ilana Novick

Ilana Novick is a freelance writer in New York City covering art, culture, activism, and the intersection of the three. She's written for AlterNet, Hyperallergic, Vice, and more.

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