Gillian Laub demonstrates how political division has impacted families across the US

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Laub has been photographing her family for the last 20 years. The resulting photobook is by turns lavish, hilarious, and moving

Gillian Laub opens Family Matters with an anecdote – a memory from back in 1999 when she was studying at New York’s International Center of Photography (ICP). She’s taking a cigarette break with a classmate when he spots a group of women down the street in fancy fur coats. The classmate pronounces them vulgar, and Laub nods in agreement.

“But as they came closer, a terrible realisation struck,” she writes. “It was my mom, my grandmother, and my Aunt Phyllis with their entire Wednesday art-appreciation tour group.” Enveloped in embrace, their perfume made it hard to breathe, she continues, “but their enthusiasm made it impossible not to smile”.

Funny, revealing, and warm, this story sets the tone for the book. Laub comes from a family “of very expressive people”, as she puts it, but they’re also loyal and loving. They’re rich, but descended from an immigrant who fled the pogroms in Eastern Europe. Laub falls out with her parents, big time, when they come out as Trump supporters. But in 2020 – “in the midst of some of our worst fighting” – they drive for hours just to see the photographer through the window during lockdown.

It’s complicated, as most families are, and they don’t always get along. Even so, they love each other. “The trick isn’t to give up on your own beliefs, or on the people you love,” Laub writes. “The trick is to end up with both.”

Gillian Laub, My quarantine birthday, 2020, from Family Matters (Aperture, 2021). © Gillian Laub.
Gillian Laub, Slater with the Trump mask, 2019, from Family Matters (Aperture, 2021). © Gillian Laub.

An acclaimed image-maker who regularly contributes to titles such as the New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker, and who published this book with Aperture, Laub has been photographing her family for the last 20 years. The images are by turns lavish, hilarious, and moving, as are the extensive texts she’s written to accompany them.

Laub doesn’t appear in the photographs but she doesn’t let herself off lightly, her writing picking out her flaws and mistakes as well as her perspective and frustrations. “I felt a responsibility to reveal myself – which, because I was behind the camera, wouldn’t have happened without substantive text,” she says. “I didn’t think it was fair to show my family in a way so publicly without also interrogating myself.”

Laub is known for shooting long-term documentary work such as Testimony, a four-year portrait project made in Israel and Palestine, and Southern Rites, a 12-year study of (and film about) a rural community in Georgia which is still riven by segregation.

But while Family Matters is much closer to home, Laub says she was motivated by similar desires. “It was different, and for one simple reason: I wasn’t an outsider here,” she tells me. “But it was similar to Southern Rites and my other projects in the sense that I wanted to look intimately and search for a deeper understanding of all the people represented. I am always seeking out what connects us and makes us human and complicated.”

Family Matters by Gillian Laub is published by Aperture.

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy