book review Family matters Photographs by Gillian Laub Reviewed by Blake Andrews “If you want to portray the American Dream in a single image, you could do worse than the cover photo of Gillian Laub’s new monograph Family Matters. It shows Laub’s late grandfather, Irving Yasgur, engaged with a large cheeseburger and fries. It’s his 85th birthday in 2003 and he’s enjoying the fruits of a long self-made journey to a wealthy retirement…”
Photographs by Gillian Laub
Opening, New York, NY, 2021. 196 pages, 9½x10¾”.
If you want to portray the American dream in one image, you could do worse than the cover photo of Gillian Laub’s new monograph Family matters. It shows Laub’s late grandfather, Irving Yasgur, engaged with a large cheeseburger and fries. It is his 85th birthday in 2003 and he is savoring the fruits of a long personal journey towards a wealthy retirement. Surrounded by his family on a beach chair in Florida, he takes a break from his Speedo to soak up the moment, accompanied by a little burger juice. He looks at Laub’s camera without a trace of embarrassment.
Yasgur was the late patriarch of a sprawling family, the Laubs/Yasgurs (of Woodstock fame). Fortunately for posterity, but also for art photo enthusiasts, his descendants include an excellent photographer. Gillian Laub was on site for most family gatherings and events, compiling a consistent record. It was done a bit out of trigger habit, but also with the vague idea that they might evolve into a future project. As with many family stories, it took a while for Laub to come to fruition. The footage was finally catalyzed into book form by the shock of Trump’s victory in 2016. Now published by Aperture in conjunction with a show at ICP, the long wait was well worth it.
Family matters is sharp, entertaining and utterly relevant to contemporary politics. At the basic level, Family matters is a traditional photo album, with Laub’s photographs forming the core. They trace a roughly chronological route from 1999 to the present day, one or two photos per board. Endpapers taken from old albums reference the power of images as living history. But in this case, the photographs are supplemented with material not normally found in old photo albums. Laub’s written anecdotes use photographs to recount memories, relationships, and related events. She’s a talented writer and the captions are brilliant on their own. Best of all, they coalesce into page-turning drama. From the intro – “Life has unfolded to reveal chasms I never expected.” – Laub hints at trouble to come. When it does, all hell breaks loose. But for much of the book, we don’t know exactly what the future holds. The reader’s anticipation creates a narrative arc more typical of a three-act play than an artist’s monograph.
I’ll get to the final act in a moment, but let’s put that aside for now to focus on the photos, which are extremely well done. Laub studied at ICP. She has worked, taught and published widely over a period of twenty years. A working pro, in other words. When aiming for her family, her household dioramas could fit on a gallery wall as easily as an old photo album. It’s both good and bad. These photos can be enjoyed as complex and interesting images, even if you know nothing of Laub’s family. But they also have a certain performative magazine quality, more objective than intimate.
A photo at the beginning of the book – of grandparents stepping out of a furry limo – alludes to their social background and the unconscious privilege that later turns into family enmity. Another photo of Grandpa and Mom kissing signifies warm family dynamics, while a glaring shot of his wedding planner carries a more ominous tone. All are photos to which Laub had singular access. You’d expect that from any rowdy, sprawling family with a photographer in the clan. She may have chosen a less traditional path, but she pays off in those precious moments.
The family meets regularly, parties, eats, talks, etc. All is well for several years until 2016, when the family dynamic descends into chaos with the rise of – who else? —Donald Trump. The great disrupter who has sown division throughout the country. It turns out the Laub family wasn’t immune. Gillian Laub is an educated, city-dwelling artist and, perhaps unsurprisingly, a woke liberal. Her parents are suburban gentry and prone to Trump’s charms. To Laub’s shock, they transform overnight into ardent Trump supporters. Who would have guessed? Certainly not Laub. Her photographs of them with various MAGA aprons, hats and posters are alarming and dramatic, as if Laub couldn’t quite grasp what she was seeing.
Tensions persist for several years until the 2016 election, and until today. Parties are taken and passionate words exchanged, as well as stern looks. A stream of angry text from the book provides a microcosm of similar battles taking place in living rooms across the country. The Laubs are not atypical, and this book could be considered a case study of our difficult political climate. In the end, they persevere and reaffirm family ties – they have no choice – and Family matters ends on a Panglossian note, vaguely unsettling given that Trumpism is still very much alive.
Family matters joins the pantheon of family photo classics, along with beloved monographs by Larry Sultan, Sally Mann and Richard Billingham, to name a few. What makes this book particularly enjoyable is that it also captures the post-truth zeitgeist of competing worldviews. If the fun of photography is its ambiguity, Trump might provide the perfect control sample. How can rational people see the same basic facts and get away with such different understandings? How can one person’s election result be another person’s international plot? It’s a lesson that photographers constantly struggle with. Ultimately, the meanings of images and politicians are in the eye of the beholder. Laub does an admirable job as an objective observer, trying to register people and events with negligible bias. But his book will always contain very different meanings depending on the political views of the reader. It is a portrait of the American dream. Whether this dream is threatened or healthy is up for debate.
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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.