The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2021

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MAY 2021 Issue

Thomas Holton: The Lams of Ludlow Street

Thomas Holton, Bath Time, 2004. Courtesy Home Gallery.

On View
Home Gallery
April 8 – June 8, 2021
New York

There are few mediums more voyeuristic than photography, and The Lams of Ludlow Street initially triggered my worst instincts. I arrived at the storefront window of Home Gallery—which is, in fact, the entirety of Home Gallery—to a single large photograph of Asian-presenting children living in close conditions, alongside the photographer’s non-Asian-sounding name. It discomfited me that he described his initial interest in the family to be due to their “cramped, 350 square foot” apartment.

I saw The Lams of Ludlow Street in the second stage of a cycle of four; in each two-week iteration, one photograph of the Lams is displayed in large-scale, 40 by 60 inches format, progressing chronologically. In Bath Time (2004), the first photograph, the three siblings play in a sudsy tub as Shirley, the mother, looks out over them from the sink. Toward the left of the frame of Waiting for Dinner (2011), the second work, Michael, the oldest sibling, works on his homework, gripping the pen in the fist of his left hand, lips ajar in concentration. On the other side of a thin cloth curtain, Cindy, the youngest, lounges against a bed frame, her bent knees a buffer against us but her gaze cocksure, meeting ours squarely; a neon orange wire snakes diagonally behind her. In After Swimming (2013), the third, Cindy, alight in a coral dress and gently grasping a pale pink umbrella, gazes directly at the camera from the center of a sidewalk. And in Watching “Black Mirror” (2019), the last in the series, Cindy, this time grown up and wearing eyeliner, again gazes out at the camera, unsmiling, clutching a phone, alongside her father, Steven; her middle brother, Franklin; and his girlfriend.

Thomas Holton, <em>Waiting for Dinner</em>, 2011. Courtesy Home Gallery.
Thomas Holton, Waiting for Dinner, 2011. Courtesy Home Gallery.

There’s much in these photographs, and the accompanying two-sentence text and tombstone, which doesn’t meet the eye. Thomas Holton, the photographer, is half Chinese; his mother fled from China to Taiwan during the Communist revolution before immigrating to the US, and his father was a white American travel photographer. His father’s travels, on top of instilling in him both an early sense of what photography was and a desire to become a photographer himself, led to the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, followed by his father’s early death. As a result, Holton’s Chinese family featured prominently in his life, including grandparents who lived in a retirement home on the very street on which the exhibition is held.

Holton first met the Lams while accompanying a representative of University Settlements, a housing advocate group, looking for families to photograph. Shirley Lam, the mother, invited him to return, both because, Holton says, “she’s a loving and caring person,” and also because he was “entertainment” who would wrestle with or watch over the kids while she prepared dinner or otherwise labored around the house. Michael Lam remembers it similarly; Holton was like an uncle who babysat for them, and their only babysitter at that. “He’s a good man,” his mother told him, a man who brought the children Kodak cameras and his own parrots for them to play with. She also, Michael suggests, wanted to “show the world how they lived.” The line between necessity and closeness, though, could be blurred: Holton, for instance, drove Michael to college, partly because he was the only one who owned a car.

Voyeurism features prominently in this show. “I wanted to get behind closed doors,” Holton said about the series. “The questions I have always had regarding my Chinese half,” he adds in his written description of the work, “were ultimately addressed in a completely different experience than I originally envisioned as I began to understand the Chinatown family I never had.” The austere format of the exhibition—so stripped down as to paradoxically be endlessly evocative—lends itself to voyeurism as well. Whereas one typically builds an understanding of an artist, body of work, or curatorial through-line by forging connections between works and a guiding text in the closed world of an exhibition, here, homing in (no pun intended) on a single work diffuses context into the surrounding environment. Standing on the sidewalk, peering into this Chinatown storefront around the corner from the Lam’s apartment, the exhibition invites the viewer to imagine that other families much like this one exist in similar apartments all around, if one could only see through the walls. Indeed, in daylight, it’s impossible to look into the work without seeing the reflected awning of the furniture store and Kung Fu studio across the street. At night, it’s lit up cozily, as if a Hopper interior, seen longingly from the outside.

Thomas Holton, <em>Watching “Black Mirror”</em>, 2019. Courtesy Home Gallery.
Thomas Holton, Watching “Black Mirror”, 2019. Courtesy Home Gallery.

“I could never figure out how to name things,” Will Chan, the curator and owner of Home Gallery and an artist himself, told me, regarding the name. “I guess, if you live long enough you’re lucky enough to have a home: a partner, food, sleep.” The name was speculative, hopeful: “I just want this country to be warmer, and nicer. The things that we are not.” An immigrant from Hong Kong who arrived as a third grader in ’84, Holton’s photographs triggered a kind of recognition for Chan. In choosing to feature his photographs, Chan hoped to present work which reflected the community instead of intruding upon it.

In the simultaneously stripped and over-full context of Home Gallery, the photograph elicited in me interest, curiosity, compassion, familiarity, and an attendant suspicion of that familiarity, as well as discomfort. I saw in the Lams a life somewhat like my own: children to Chinese immigrants in New York, with markers in those photographs only someone with a shared background would be primed to notice: the not-quite Mickey Mouse-print jacket Cindy wears in Waiting for Dinner, the floral-print water kettle in another. Indeed, Michael Lam attended high school with me. At the same time, I grew up wealthier than the Lams, and within a different Chinese enclave. And as the show requires multiple visits across time to witness its full scope, its target audience are those who walk by it daily, on the myriad routines and lives which overlay and overlap each block, which does not include me. Along those lines, what would seem to be a relatively straightforward cross-section of a family’s life raises vexing questions about the right of association.

The Lams of Ludlow Street is successful not only because Holton’s photographs are skilled, but because in the pared down and heightened environs of Home Gallery, i.e., a Chinatown street, they serve as synecdoche for the complexity of photography, the fraught relationships between subject and artist, the desires of artists and viewers, the question of where the subject remains amidst those relationships, and the limits of voyeurism. And it is successful at the same time because it simultaneously isn’t that—just a searingly specific portrait of a single family, ringing with signifiers, but itself all the same. The work of the exhibition lies in the interchange: between the Lams as photographed by Holton, and the street that you stand on, the neighborhood it’s situated in, and everything you carry with you when you arrive.


Lisa Yin Zhang

Lisa Yin Zhang is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2021

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