Someone has left in a hurry. The signs are there in the photograph: the open drawers, the improperly rolled tissue paper, the white electric cable peeking out from underneath the counter. The walls and floors are covered with marble — reflecting light, intensifying the room’s emptiness. Through the window, outside, tall slim trees give the house a sense of scale and location — it is easy to imagine that this is an outsize property in an area far from where everyday people live.
Shot in 2015 after her grandmother died, “Emptied House” is the most haunting photograph in Gillian Laub’s exhibition “Family Matters,” showing through Jan. 10 at the International Center of Photography in Lower Manhattan.
These 62 photographs spanning 1999 to 2021 are records of moments in Laub’s extended New York family. Some, like “Emptied House,” are poignant, announcing heavy but inevitable parts of life; others, like “Grandma grabbing grandpa’s tush,” where a woman’s well-manicured hand rests on her husband’s behind, are pure whimsy. There are also familiar joys most families will understand, like “Grandma pinching Nolan’s cheeks,” where a woman plays with her grandson. The show’s episodic arrangement into four “acts” and an epilogue makes it easy to follow, and as the years go by one feels a growing intimacy with Laub’s large Jewish family — their wins and losses are spread bare, and their ability to stick together is evident, alongside their relentless extravagance.
But by 2016, after one gets past “Emptied House” — the final appearance of any of the members of the oldest generation — it is clear that “Family Matters” is not about nostalgia. (Anymore than Tina Barney’s images of upper class families were just portraits of summer traditions and rituals: They encapsulated the 1980s embrace of wealth.)
For the Laubs, elements of internal discord begin to rear their head: slogans and signage that became rampant during the 2016 presidential campaign pervade “Act III,” where things begin to fall apart in the family.
Messages seem to be everywhere in the house. Laub’s father has aprons labeled “TRUMP KEEP AMERICA GREAT” and golf bags with former President Donald J. Trump’s face embroidered in golden thread. In “My nephew’s bedroom” — the only other photograph of an empty room in the series — “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” posters adorn the bedside table and the walls alongside the caricature of a shark, its mouth slightly open. As the series unfolds, we learn that some of the younger members of the family (including Laub herself) have differing political opinions from their parents, and are trying to navigate the frustration that comes with these choices.
Viewed from the precipice of 2021, these struggles will be recognizable to many Americans who find themselves sharing the holidays with family members; they are also sharing and debating opposing views on the looming midterm elections, abortion bans, vaccine mandates, climate change, and immigration policies. Those fissures are likely to persist all through the New Year.
Having to navigate the complexities of family ties versus differing political stances may actually be why Laub decided to do the show — she’d first shared her story in a performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and because it resonated with the audience, she pursued it further. It became a book, and then a show at the ICP, where she’d been a student in 1998.
There’s no sharper image of the family’s class and wealth than “Grandpa helping grandma out,” where sisters-in-law Beatrice Yasgur (Laub’s grandmother) and Doris Gershenov (referred to simply as “Aunt Doris”) are draped in fur and jewelry. Irving Yasgur (Laub’s grandfather, who made a fortune working in real estate for more than 60 years) is shown helping his wife, Beatrice, out of a limousine and his brother-in-law (with whom he worked for a long time) is seated in the car. Iconic, warm, shiny, this image outlines the character of the family: their intense love for each other, as well as for the good things of life.
Discussing this picture with The New York Times in 2000, a year after it was taken, Beatrice says, “Without being pretentious, it’s just that we like the comforts. At this stage of our lives, we’ve earned them.”
In an era of increasing income inequality, it is considered by some to be politically correct to want to “eat the rich,” to borrow from the French philosopher Rousseau, but an interesting consideration — which Laub’s show offers — is an insight into how one woman born into this kind of privilege examines herself in the face of such access to wealth and power.
Laub, in the text that prefaces “Act I,” writes, “As I grew up, delight mixed with embarrassment. I felt gratitude for our life, but conflicted by our extravagance, especially as I became aware of its social and economic context and consequences.” Was her earlier work as a photographer in uncomfortable situations like the Israel-Palestine conflict or racism and segregation in the Southern United States a response to this, a result of her trying to enter head-on into realities that were far from hers? Regardless, in “Family Matters,” even before the family fracture resulting from the 2016 elections, the third section of the show, her fears are palpable, her worries are potent, her concerns are clear.
“Act III” also contains some of the family’s most contentious conversations, published as a video continuously scrolling their group text. They disagree aggressively and usually with strong language, post nerve-grating memes, and poke fun at each other’s politics. Yet these conversations aren’t peculiar — every group text is predicated on a sense of trust, and in such spaces, people usually feel confident enough to say things they’d never say anywhere else.
Laub said in a phone interview that she did not ask for permission from the members of the group to use their chat as part of her texts in the show and that the texts were only edited for brevity and clarity. “I had a friend of theirs who I knew would strongly represent their interests look at the different versions of the text before it was eventually published, but I chose to exercise my right of authorship without their permission or input.”
In the exhibition, when the eventful year of 2020 finally arrives, the images turn toward the children. Through them we get a sense of how frustrating the times are, how dark, how sad. It is unclear here how the older people — especially Laub’s parents, who voted for Trump, are grappling with how the president handled national events like the pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, or the siege on the Capitol. There is, instead, a photograph of Laub’s mother on a yoga mat with Fox News on the TV in the background showing Trump calling Joseph R. Biden Jr. a “Puppet of the Radical Left.” Perhaps this is a subtle message by Laub: it is the sole luxury of the privileged to be able to move on without having to deal with the consequences of their actions.
Yet one major difference between Laub’s story and that of many American families in a similar situation is perhaps that her parents had some kind of direct access to Trump’s world. After moving to Chappaqua, N.Y., in the 1980s because it was — as she puts it in the book — “beautiful, upscale, and had some of the best public schools in the region,” her father wasn’t able to join any of the elite country clubs there. It was an unspoken rule: Jews and Black people were not welcome. When Trump’s golf club opened in Westchester in 2002, it had no restrictions and Laub’s father joined immediately.
“I remember him talking excitedly about how it was open to everyone,” Laub said, adding that many of their family functions, including bar mitzvahs, were held there. Did this kind of acceptance (and therefore validation) by Trump’s club earn the loyalty of Laub’s parents? Would they have supported Trump anyway even if his politics had been different? They were, after all, from a family of immigrants who had moved from Russia to the U.S. in pursuit of the American dream, and even more than money, the right to assimilation seems to be, for the immigrant, the ultimate achievement.
In the end, Laub’s family is still intact. “Making this work was a form of therapy for me,” she said, talking about the current state of her family. “This project has actually helped our relationship and there is more transparency and productive conversation happening than we’ve ever had.”
There is a photograph of Laub’s cousin, Violet, seated on her bed. Her wall is filled with posters: Barack Obama in Hebrew, Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and a poster that reads “WE CAN END GUN VIOLENCE.” The next picture shows Cooper, another cousin of Laub’s, holding a shotgun at a skeet shooting site. Placed side by side, these two images offer a metaphor for what is perhaps the greatest achievement of the show: a clear statement on how the future of American politics is far from homogeneous, and how in 2022 and onward, American families must find a way to live with that.