Art In Conversation
Gillian Laub with Jean Dykstra
“The minute you frame a picture, everything is subjective.”
New York CityInternational Center Of Photography
September 24, 2021 – January 10, 2022
Gillian Laub has been photographing societal conflicts for more than 20 years. Her portraits of Israeli Jews and Arabs, Lebanese, and Palestinians whose lives were upended by the conflict in the Middle East were collected in the book Testimony (Aperture, 2007). Her series “Southern Rites,” which began as a New York Times Magazine assignment to photograph segregated proms in Georgia, eventually became a decade-long photographic project that turned into a traveling exhibition and a documentary film about racial tensions and the legacy of racial inequality. She is used to swimming in turbulent social and political waters and taking viewers on a deep dive that goes beyond surface impressions. But the most painful subject matter personally has probably been the one she’s explored in her new book, Family Matters (Aperture, 2021), also an exhibition by the same name on view at the International Center of Photography through January 10, 2022. Laub has been photographing her expressive, affluent, affectionate Jewish family since her grandfather gave her a Polaroid camera when she was six years old. She’s been prowling family gatherings, camera in hand, for years, making portraits and documenting special occasions. But when her parents and other family members became avid and enthusiastic Trump supporters in 2016, Laub was blindsided. In shock, and experiencing what she calls an “existential crisis,” she kept photographing. The resulting photographs—full of anguish, confusion, and anger, but also love, tenderness, and humor—are deeply personal, but they’re also emblematic of rifts that were splitting open many families and communities during the Trump presidency. Laub spoke to me a few days after her exhibition opened at the ICP.
Jean Dykstra (Rail): Congratulations on all of this—the book and the exhibition! I liked the way that you and David Campany, the managing director of programs at the ICP and curator of the exhibition, used the double-height wall to show old family photos, letters, and recent pictures, not to mention the little acrylic photo sculptures of your grandparents in matching Western outfits. It conveys a sense of humor but also a sense of deep family history and strong family ties. I was wondering how the opening was for you. I know your family was there, and it must have been a very different experience for your family to look at the pictures on the wall, with other people there, versus looking through the book in the privacy of their home. What was that like?
Gillian Laub: It was very emotional. I don’t know if it’s because other people were there, but more because they just saw so many people large on the walls that they’ve loved and lost. So to them, I think the biggest take away from that night was just—oh my goodness, it hit them in a different way than the book did. And the voices, you know, the audio part, they were very, very, very emotional. My mom cried when she heard her father’s voice. I don’t think they would have agreed for me to ever publish this if they were people who were worried about what other people thought of them, which is what I really admire. They are comfortable with who they are, and their response wasn’t driven by ego. They were really just moved and emotional because so many people who they’ve loved are gone. And they were there staring at them on the walls. Reading the book was more of an intimate experience for them. The exhibition felt much more visceral.
Rail: One of the interesting things about the book is that you set the tone from the very first page, when you describe this awkward scene, where you’re on a corner with a bunch of fellow ICP students and you see your grandparents walking toward you in fur coats and bright lipstick.
Laub: And my mom.
Rail: Right. And your fellow students make a comment about those “vulgar women,” who then promptly envelop you in hugs and kisses when they see you. That sets the tone for the whole book in terms of your back-and-forthness, your discomfort with certain things about your family, but your huge love and affection for them at the same time. You describe your family as “emotional and material too muchness” but at the same time, you want to say to those friends: You don’t understand! My ancestors barely got out alive from Ukraine and worked their fingers to the bone when they got here. In the exhibition, people can enter at any point, but in the book, you lead them through. You set the stage by introducing your big, gregarious, loving family, then you introduce these complications.
Laub: That was very intentional.
Rail: That comes through in the exhibition as well, but people can enter it at different points.
Laub: That is true, and I tried to guide the viewer as much as possible and to make it as interactive as possible, but without having a heavy hand. People don’t want to be told how to look at something, and I respect that. That’s why I don't want people to think the audio component is just an audio guide. So many people get turned off by that. It is not an audio guide, it’s an integral part of the exhibition experience.
Rail: This series gets right to the heart of what’s happening in this country among so many families, so many friends, so many communities—this divide where people just don’t understand what is happening with their families or their siblings or their friends. I know you’ve been taking pictures of your family forever, but at what point did you think you might turn these pictures into a book or an exhibition?
Laub: Look, subconsciously, I think I always knew. It’s been a personal project of mine for a very long time. I never know what form any project is going to take, ever, and that’s also kind of what drives me, because I just know I have to do something or explore something without knowing how it will evolve. With Southern Rites, it began with taking photographs, but I wasn’t able to fully tell the nuanced story with just photographs. So I ended up making the film. It became a multi-platform project 12 years later, but I never could have anticipated that. Because that’s the journey, that’s all part of my personal unfolding, or excavating. So I always knew there was something there, but I’m never in a rush. I believe in the power of time revealing what the truth of the story is, and although I wish I worked faster, it’s just not my way. I’ve always admired Larry Sultan’s work, Richard Billingham, Nicholas Nixon, people who photograph families…Rineke Dijkstra’s portraits. The power is in seeing life unfold over the course of time. For me, it was always going to be a long-term project because it was about the milestones and cycles of life.
I always question what makes this art? What is the difference between family snapshots and art? I never really realized what it was revealing to me until around 2017, when I struggled with my family, and when I really started to take inventory on almost 20 years of work. I also realized that what my family was going through was a microcosm of what the country was going through, and that’s when I realized there was a much larger story there than just my family. And I thought people could hopefully relate to it—I felt like the larger narrative was revealing itself to me then.
Rail: Did you show your family the pictures before they were published?
Laub: Yes, I would never publish anything without their consent.
Rail: That’s what I thought…
Laub: I showed them all of the pictures beforehand. So you saw the picture of my nephew’s bedroom—there was another picture I was meant to publish, but he did not want me to, so unfortunately, that was taken out.
Rail: You talk about what differentiates a family snapshot from art, and I don’t want to neglect that aspect of the work. You’re a skilled portrait photographer, and there’s so much going on in these photographs. One of things I particularly notice in the pictures is the way the gazes of the subjects direct the viewer’s gaze through the picture. So, for instance, in Mom’s Table: your grandfather is drinking a glass of wine, your mom is leaning down to whisper something to your dad or maybe give him a kiss, your dad is looking at you, and there’s someone in the background looking at you, with what looks a little like a smirk, as if to say: there she goes again with the camera.
Laub: All of the pictures happen in different ways. That happens to be a moment that was caught. That wasn’t a choreographed moment. Over 20 years, there have been so many different kinds of moments that have happened in these pictures. That particular moment was when I was photographing one of our Thanksgivings, so there was nothing choreographed about that. Other pictures aren’t the same, some photographs are re-created snapshots, and re-created choreographed moments. I kind of like that the viewer may or may not be able to tell the difference.
Rail: David Campany and I were talking about your work and Diana Markosian’s, whose exhibition Santa Barbara is also on view at ICP, and about the fact that we need a new language to talk about photography. People talk about “staged” photographs and some of these are, I guess, but they aren’t really what you think of as staged photographs. Yet they’re clearly not documentary, fly-on-the-wall photographs, either. We need a better way to talk about the kinds of photographs you make.
Laub: I think Diana and I are both more experimental in our methods of storytelling. It’s not so easy to define what both of us are trying to do in our practices. l feel like such a hybrid. Photography is a large part of my practice, but film, text, and audio also play an integral role. I’ve never identified with a particular label or category and I find them confining and reductive. Nothing about my practice is fly-on-the-wall. I’m not a photojournalist and these aren’t documentary pictures, so I don’t know where that leaves us with all of these labels, but I don’t fit into any of them. A few curators have said to me, you have to start claiming, with confidence, that you’re an artist. And they’re like: “if you were a man you would!”
Rail: Right, that’s probably true. Maybe it has as much to do with the category of photography that you’re trying to come up with a name for, though, as it does with being reluctant to call what you do art. There’s also the distinction between “Fine Art Photography” and “Documentary Photography,” and for me, the most interesting work generally doesn't fit neatly into either category.
Laub: I totally agree.
Rail: It’s that blend of fact and fiction…
Laub: But here’s the thing, though—what is fact? I’m not saying this is fiction and these are made up, but what is totally true? The minute you frame a picture, everything is subjective.
Rail: Right, and maybe this is one truth, this is your truth.
Laub: Right, 100 percent! There are different ways of telling stories, you know. I don’t bring props with me, but I might rearrange a room … nothing is straight nor do I claim it to be. I would love for somebody to help redefine the terms that we use and the boxes that everyone puts people in.
Rail: Whether or not you moved a bowl of cherries is not really the point.
Rail: It’s narrative, it’s telling a more complicated story—like the Southern Rites project, which has become a very influential project with a wide reach. Is it still traveling?
Laub: I’m very excited because it’s making a homecoming, going to the Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center and then going to the Eastman Museum for six months in the spring of 2022. The amazing thing about that project is that every time it opens in a city, it becomes an opportunity to engage in the difficult conversations about how this relates to dynamics of racism and segregation that exist in their own communities. Right before the pandemic began, the show opened in Portland and the same weekend there was a white supremacy rally down the street. The museum was booked with school tours the entire run of the show, but then COVID hit. Before that, the show was at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wisconsin, which is a very white community, and these weren’t comfortable conversations that people were used to having in Madison. I’m so grateful Southern Rites continues to travel, because we clearly need to keep having these conversations
Rail: It seems like a lot of your projects are long-term commitments for you and that also you tend toward projects that aim to spur very difficult conversations.
Laub: Yes, and I swear that was not by design. It’s just what I’ve been drawn to and what has come out of my own real curiosity and personal obsessions.
Rail: You have a couple of pictures showing your grandmother’s caregiver, Dorothy. Is that something you ever considered delving a little deeper into, the history of Black caregivers working for white families?
Laub: Yes. I’ve always wanted to do a project on caregivers, and there are other people who have done it really well. But it’s something that I think about all the time and have throughout the years, that dynamic and that relationship.
Rail: The Trump National Golf Club is a really interesting minor character in this book.
Laub: Oh, yes.
Rail: You talk about how golf clubs in the area wouldn’t accept Black or Jewish members, and then your dad was able to join the Trump golf club and how much that meant to him. So there’s some understanding of why he would have this allegiance to Trump, maybe.
Laub: I wasn’t conscious of the role it played in my life until I really started to think back and try to understand. I was so baffled by my parents’ support of Trump that I did everything and anything that I could to try to figure out the history, because to understand people’s choices it’s really important to understand them and their history. It turns out that it made a lot of sense to me when I really thought about the anti-Semitism that my parents had experienced. And ironically it was the Trump Club that accepted my family when no one else would, and that felt like a powerful realization.
In Act Two of the book, when I made that picture of the bris, I could not stand how Trump put his face and logo on everything. And that was in 2007! I just thought it was so obnoxious, and my whole goal in making that picture was to move all of the Trump water bottles out of the frame. So it’s like he’s been haunting me!
The first two family brises were beautiful ceremonies at synagogues, and it’s so interesting, looking back: the third one was at the Trump National Golf Club, and then our family bar mitzvahs started all happening there. And there were always stories about when Trump came to the club, and this and that. So I do feel haunted by him for many years.
Rail: Did you see this coming at all, your parents’ support of him?
Laub: No, not at all! That’s why I felt like I was having an existential crisis, because everything he stood for was the antithesis of everything they raised me on. It made no sense to me!
Rail: Having done this series, what kind of sense do you make of it now?
Laub: I think that fear is a very, very powerful thing. I think he got them with fear. He was kind of a political genius in that way. My mom and dad really would say to me—earnestly say to me—“Gillian, we’ve worked so hard, do you want to lose this home that we built?” And that, I really do believe, is Fox News. We’re all consuming different narratives.
Rail: In the video of your parents looking at the book, your dad says it’s sort of a shame that you wasted so much time hating someone so much—like, why are you getting so worked up over all of this?
Laub: Yeah, they really felt sorry for me. They couldn’t understand why I wasted so much time being angry. They sincerely felt bad for me.
Rail: I guess that’s the crux of the difference. The things that you were angry about were not making them angry.
Laub: My dad said, “look at what’s going on in Afghanistan. Do I scream at you for voting for Biden when he is 100 percent responsible for a travesty that we’re living through?” In the end, after Biden was elected, I said to them, “Are you sad?” He said: “no, I don’t kick and scream, I go back to work.” And he does!
Rail: You reproduced text threads of arguments between you and your family members in the show and the book. That decision is really interesting. Can you say a little bit about it?
Laub: The text threads are interesting because that was so much of how we communicated throughout the past five years. Everyone got very—they could be mean. And I also feel like that’s kind of a microcosm of something larger in this world that’s going on right now—look how mean people can be on social media. When you don’t have to look somebody in the face, what you can get away with saying. Nobody talks like that in person to each other, but it was so hurtful. And even if some things were meant as a joke, it got lost in translation. I struggled with whether or not to include the text messages. I was really on the fence. I took a poll from trusted people—do I include them or not? And some people said no, it distracts from the work. But ultimately I thought, this is a huge part of the narrative. These text messages are part of our collective lives, all of us, so I thought that they were also a microcosm of a larger story about how people communicate over texting and social media.
Rail: That’s absolutely true, how aggressive and even cruel people can be when they’re not looking at someone face to face, and also the way you can misread something that might be said more lightly. One thing that also struck me was that your brother-in-law addresses your husband rather than you, though he’s talking about you.
Laub: I’m not going to comment specifically on that, but what I can say is that the text messages were edited from pages and pages of messages, and what was included was intentional. They tell their own story about certain dynamics.
Rail: I want to go back a little bit—how did you start photographing to begin with?
Laub: It’s such a cliché, but I really fell in love with photography after my grandfather gave me a Polaroid camera at the age of six. I still have the Polaroids I took from the age of six. I used to pose people and make portraits of them, and they seriously look like amateur versions of the pictures I make today.
Rail: You’ve always been a portrait photographer, then! And did you study photography in college or was that graduate school?
Laub: The year I studied abroad, I studied photography at the American University of Paris Semester at Sea, but I was a literature major in undergrad at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I started out as a photography major but the only way to be a photography major at the time was to take all these other prerequisite classes, like drawings and sculpture, and I was terrible at all the other plastic arts. I’ve always loved storytelling, so I changed to comparative literature, because that was a different way of being immersed in narrative. But I realized I missed taking photographs so much, so when I went abroad I studied photography, and that’s when I realized I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. That’s when I went to ICP.
Rail: Were there photographers who you were looking at and whose work you admired?
Laub: I read Diane Arbus’s biography when I was in high school and her life and work resonated with me on a deep level. I remember seeing Diane Arbus’s and Nan Goldin’s work and having a visceral response and just wanting more of it. My high school photography teacher had a huge influence on me. I took this class called “On Creating,” which explored the relationship between text and photography. One of our assignments was called the “Duane Michals assignment,” and I did that on my father. I interviewed him and made the photos and text into this cardboard accordion. High school had a huge impact on me because of that one class. I was influenced by artists like Duane Michals, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, and Jim Goldberg who used images with text in their work.
Rail: This is an aside but your great uncle was the Yasgur of Yasgur’s Farm, where Woodstock took place, right?
Laub: Yes, Max Yasgur.
Rail: And I know your grandfather started a summer camp, and you got kicked out of your own grandfather’s summer camp, is that right?
Laub: My dad did too! I was very rebellious and I didn’t like rules. I was 10 years old and I led a walk out but with row boats. So we ran away from camp, but in boats.
Rail: Do you remember why you ran away?
Laub: Good question! I used to get into trouble jumping out my bunk windows too. I guess that’s a theme now that I think about it, I don’t like to feel constricted. But goodness that was dangerous, if my own girls did that now, I’d be so worried and upset.
Rail: One of the pictures that I love maybe gets at this idea of rule following—or not—and of your aesthetic as a photographer, and that’s the picture of your nephews and their dog, titled “Cooper, Nolan, and Bailey” that you took when your sister wanted you to take a formal family portrait. It’s such a fantastic and funny picture. But that encapsulates the differences between you and your sister and what she wanted to see in a photograph and what you did.
Laub: I remember arguing with her the whole time, because what she wanted me to capture was not what I thought was a good photograph. So I needed to take the picture she wanted me to take, but also to take my own picture. Our ideas of what made a great family portrait were different, and that was the last time she asked me to do hers.
Rail: I want to mention the picture of your mom and your daughters, Rosh Hashana (2020). Your mom has leopard-print leggings on, and your daughter is wearing a leopard-print shirt. It’s a little visual cue suggesting a deeper connection. It says a lot more than it seems to say on the surface.
Laub: I’m happy that you see that. It’s a very simple photograph, but there’s more to it.
Rail: The photograph of one of your daughters in the Superwoman costume with her hands on the window is a wonderful, but also kind of heartbreaking picture (Izzi During Quarantine, 2020). It says a lot about the resilience of kids (the costume), but also a lot about the sadness of being separated during the pandemic.
Laub: That felt very symbolic to me too, especially at that time.
Rail: Going back a bit, can you talk about a picture called Chappaqua Backyard (2000)?
Laub: That’s in 2000, I was just starting to get commissions from different magazines, and there was this incredible editor at the New York Times Magazine named Amy Spindler. She was a style editor and totally got visual storytelling. She’s since passed away—Spindler died in 2004, at the age of 40. She would hire non-fashion photographers to do fashion shoots, and she would let me cast my family and friends. That was one example. That was an editorial—they’re all wearing clothes by advertisers in the magazine. But for me that was an exciting way to make a picture that I wanted to make anyway, but also fulfilling the assignment. The kids are a cousin and family friend, the two 20-somethings are models who were cast as the parents, and my grandfather is in the back. It was so much fun.
Rail: In the midst of COVID, your parents offered their backyard as a place for you to photograph Mary J. Blige.
Laub: Yes—it was unbelievable, for so many reasons. First of all, I always dreamed of shooting Mary J. Blige. Second, it was my first big shoot during COVID. We were having such a hard time finding a location because of COVID that it almost didn’t happen. So my parents really came to the rescue and offered us their backyard to use for the shoot. But I was so relieved that because of COVID, nobody could enter the house, because here’s Mary J. Blige, being like “your family is so wonderful,” and I was like, thank god she can’t go in the house and see all the Trump paraphernalia and the framed photograph of my father and Trump on the mantle. The photograph of my mom, Mom After Yoga (2020), where she’s laying on her yoga mat with Trump speaking on Fox News in the background embodies all of these different tensions coming together, and the straddling of different worlds. For me, this feels like the most symbolic image of the past five years.
By the way—I went up to get my mom to say goodbye to Mary, and I found her like that in front of Fox News, so I took a snapshot on my iPhone, and I knew that I had to make that picture. I thought: this encapsulates everything, this says everything I need to say. So I actually went back and recreated that picture. That picture is one of my favorite in the whole book. There is humor and absurdity here. It makes me smile and gasp every time I look at it—you just can’t make this shit up!