The Lams of Ludlow Street by Thomas Holton: “A photography project that has turned into my life”

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For almost two decades, Holton has photographed a family in Chinatown, through marriages, divorces, and children growing up and moving out

When Thomas Holton started photographing New York’s Chinatown two decades ago, he had no idea it would lead to an intimacy with his subjects that most artists can only dream of. The Lams of Ludlow Street is a sprawling series following a family in Chinatown, through divorces, marriages, children growing up and moving out. It is on show as one of eight projects in Kinship, an exhibition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery that explores the bonds that connect people. 

Born to a Chinese mother and white American father, Holton always felt a disconnect. “I was raised in this Caucasian, New York City life but with a Chinese mother,” he says. “My maternal grandparents moved to Chinatown, so I was regularly there. I never learned to speak Chinese, which is possibly one of my biggest regrets. I couldn’t speak to them, and they couldn’t speak to me. There was always a feeling like I didn’t quite belong.”

While studying at New York’s School of Visual Arts for his MFA in 2003, Holton started taking photographs of storefronts and people selling produce. He was frustrated that these images didn’t go beyond the place witnessed by tourists. “Chinatown is often seen as a destination to get a great lunch, buy counterfeit Gucci, or shop at the markets,” he says. “But when you look up it’s buildings which people live in. There are lives happening.”

© Thomas Holton.

Holton’s professors encouraged him to get behind closed doors. He reached out to a housing associate who made home visits to check that tenants had everything they needed and were informed of their rights. Holton offered free images for the associate’s brochure if he could visit with them and take photographs of consenting inhabitants. “I’d be with each family for about half an hour,” he says. “Yes, I made some images, but it wasn’t a slice of life, they were a little stiff. As a photographer I wanted things to happen more organically.”

One of the families he met was the Lams: mother Shirley, father Steven, and three children. The black and white image below is from the first day he met them. “They were going to Hong Kong to visit relatives. I went back a week later with the pictures. Shirley asked if I wanted to stay for dinner.” A reciprocal relationship developed between Holton and the Lams. “It got to a point where I was picking up the children from school while Shirley went food shopping. I was a free babysitter!” he laughs. “I became a part of the family and they got used to me being there. They started acting like the camera wasn’t there.”

© Thomas Holton.
© Thomas Holton.

Twenty years later and the project has spilled from the family’s original home on Ludlow Street, to the father’s post-divorce Bronx apartment. Holton has seen the eldest daughter through college, and accompanied the family train ride to her graduation. “I met the parents in Grand Central Station,” he says. “We hopped on the train, and I’m like, ‘This isn’t even my family.’ I look over, Shirley is on her phone, Steven has this giant bouquet of flowers. This is a photography project that has turned into my life.” Perhaps some of the Lams’ comfort with Holton stems from the fact he doesn’t sensationalise. “You will never see them arguing, it’s the quieter, in-between moments,” he says. The tender photographs convey the soft familiarity of domestic life, of which Holton is now inextricably a part. 

While this started out as an exploration into his own Chinese identity – “perhaps what my life could have been like if things had been switched” – Holton is careful to highlight that this should not be taken to represent all lives in the area. “The idea is to make people realise there are human beings with different lived experiences,” he says. “But I consider the Lams to be an American family who happen to be Chinese. It’s the story of an American family trying to do the best they can for their children, going through the ups and downs that we all go through. None of our lives are scripted.”

The Lams of Ludlow Street by Thomas Holton is on show at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery as part of a group show, Kinship