What’s Thanksgiving like at Gillian Laub’s house? “Loud,” she says immediately. “Very loud chaos.” The Westchester-born photographer has built her decades-long career on visceral visual honesty: Testimony, her 2007 monograph of portraits of Israeli Arabs and Jews, Lebanese, and Palestinians, lays bare the contradictions and complexities of the human character. Her “Southern Rites” series followed in 2015, after the photographer spent a decade traveling the Deep South and documenting segregated prom nights. But for all her interest in capturing the rituals and traditions of other worlds, no subjects are more engaging to Laub than her own family.
The artist has been photographing her clan for decades. “Family is so rich in narrative,” she says. “I love unpacking those intergenerational dynamics and relationships.” Laub’s most recent monograph, 2022’s Family Matters, did just that. Taken over a span of 20 years, the project reveals Laub’s tight-knit family in all their spangled, spray-tanned, and boisterous glory as they lounge poolside, tumble out of limousines, and roughhouse on gargantuan velvet couches. Laub also reckons openly in the monograph with their collective turn toward trumpism: “Some members of the family took it harder, but seeing the work in its entirety helped them understand me more than they ever did,” she marvels. “I feel I got away with something. Maybe I didn't give them enough credit.”
But it’s been a year since Laub last photographed her family—at the Thanksgiving table in 2021. “I lived out the conflict so deeply [in Family Matters], and I was so grateful that they allowed me to do that publicly. I think that's why I haven't really photographed them in a while,” she muses. Those last images—personal snapshots never intended for the public eye, which Laub shared exclusively with CULTURED—reflect the warmth, ease, and excess that viewers have come to expect from a Laub gathering. “Instead of being the outsider looking in, I wanted to be in it myself again,” she says of her decision to leave the camera at home this year. For Laub, ‘being in it’ means making the trip to her sister’s house in Westchester and starting the drinking early. “My mom still does all the cooking—there’s always more food than we can ever consume. Her old handwritten recipes have gravy finger stains all over them,” she says with a smile. “Every detail is important to her, down to the serving spoons.” Laub recalls watching her late grandfather sneak morsels of turkey from the carving board, and mass-migrations to the living room for a food coma-fueled discussion of the things each family member is grateful for. This year, Laub confesses with a laugh, she will be opting for “full avoidance” of any political discussions: “Thanksgiving is a sacred time when we overlook those things and focus on spending time together.”
The photographer knows her family can be a lot—but that doesn’t stop her from inviting the odd Thanksgiving novice along for the ride and relishing their reactions to the festivities. One of Laub’s friends, a Danish artist, remembers the occasion as “an anthropological study in deep American hospitality,” and recalls sitting wide-eyed at the long, elaborately decorated dinner table. After the meal, Laub turned to her and asked gleefully, “So, what did you think of my family?”
When asked whether she’ll ever turn the camera on them again, Laub’s answer is firm. “I will always photograph them,” she says. “There's so much humor in my family—I just needed to take a moment to enjoy that.”