Gillian Laub: Family Matters

International Center of Photography, New York, opening September 24, 2021

Curated by David Campany

For the last two decades, Gillian Laub’s photography has tackled timely topics with a careful focus on community and human rights. Her work has spanned terror survivors in the Middle East (Testimony, 2007) to racism in the American south (Southern Rites, 2015), using her camera to investigate how society’s most complex questions are often writ large in our most intimate relationships and spaces—including her own. She has been simultaneously, and privately, documenting the emotional, psychological, and political landscape of her own family—exploring her growing discomfort with the many extravagances that marked their lives. Intense intergenerational bonds have shaped and nurtured Laub but have also been fraught. As it moves through time, the exhibition becomes a microcosm of a deeply conflicted nation, as the artist and her parents find themselves on opposing sides of a sharp political divide—tearing at multigenerational family ties, and forcing everyone to ask what, in the end, really binds them together.

“Photography is an ideal medium for mixed feelings and ambiguities,” said David Campany. “In the two decades it has taken Gillian Laub to tell the story of her family, she has walked the finest of lines between humor and anguish, empathy and tension, irony and sincerity. There are no easy answers here, just the honest narration of a complicated life.”

“This project is an exploration of the conflicted feelings I have about where I come from—which includes people I love and treasure, but with whom, most recently in a divided America, I have also struggled mightily,” said Gillian Laub. “It is made with the intention to accept as well as to challenge—both them and myself.”

The exhibition is organized into four acts, with more than 60 images dating from 1999-2020. In Act I, Laub captures family events—holidays, bar mitzvahs, weddings, poolside barbecues, and vacations—such as her father carving the Thanksgiving turkey, or her grandparents and great aunt embarking on a dressy night on the town. Act II shows how Laub begins to form her own family through marriage and children as she loses relatives from the older generation. Images document Laub’s wedding arrangements, including wedding dress shopping and multiple family meetings with an imperious wedding planner.

A shift comes in Act III, as Laub’s parents and other relatives enthusiastically support Donald Trump, while Laub is staunchly opposed, leading to heated political debates and exposing family fault lines. Images depict Laub’s nephew wearing a Trump rubber mask, and her father proudly wearing a red “Make America Great Again” cap while golfing, as he encourages her to “learn to be less judgmental and more tolerant.”

Act IV documents the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, racial violence, and an election—momentous world events that continue to divide the family, but also help to bring it back together. Laub’s parents drive for hours to deliver a cake and balloons to celebrate Laub’s quarantine birthday, peering through the sliding glass door for safety, and relatives gather for a masked outdoor Thanksgiving dinner in November 2020.

Laub is a storyteller. In the book Family Matters (Aperture 2021), her photographs are accompanied by her own words. For this exhibition, much of the writing is presented as immersive sound, produced by ICP’s audio guide partner Gesso, which is an integral part of the experience. Moving through the four sequential acts of Family Matters, visitors will hear the artist and her family in their own words: funny, poignant, troubled, and challenging.

Publication & Programming

A companion book, Gillian Laub: Family Matters, will be published by Aperture in September 2021. With more than eighty images, accompanied by a personal account of the artist’s life in her own words, the book offers a compelling picture of the fractures in contemporary American society, in a subversively funny and gut-wrenchingly familiar way. 228 pages, 85 four-color images. Clothbound. ISBN 978-1-59711-491-2. US $50.00 / CDN $65.00 / UK £40.00.

ICP will host public programs related to this exhibition, including a book event and signing in collaboration with Aperture, to be announced.