Real Talk: PhoTogRaPhy acRoss geneRaTions
Heroes & MenTors
Gillian laub: I grew up in a very privileged, sheltered suburban life in
Westchester, New York. The last thing that I ever wanted to photograph was my
family. For me, photography was the passport into another world, a world that my
mother wanted to shelter me from.
When I went to photography school, I went back to photograph one of the families in Martinique that I had photographed while I was on vacation with my family.
I thought it was amazing you could gain such intimacy with people that you don’t
know. At the same time I was invited to a family friend’s wedding and I decided that
the only way that I could get through [it] was to photograph it. That was really the
first time that I photographed my family, but I didn’t take it seriously. When I went
into the critique class I brought both sets of pictures, the family in Martinique and
the pictures from the wedding. The response was overwhelming. They couldn’t believe I wasn’t photographing my family, they were so fascinated. I started to really
look at work on family. Your work and Larry Sultan’s work and Richard Billingham’s
work was revelatory for me. It gave me permission to take my family work seriously.
My question is: How did you know that territory that was so familiar to you actu-
ally made a subject for art?
Tina barney: I started taking classes in 1973 in Sun Valley, Idaho, little workshops
with all the top photographers in the country. I wasn’t interested in photographing
in Idaho. I came back to Rhode Island in the summers and that location interested
© GILLIAN LAUB
me much more. But I wasn’t taking myself that seriously.
The pictures had a lot to do with the difference between
this New England summer resort and living in Sun Valley,
Idaho. I took pictures of rituals and of gestures of physical affection, still with a 35mm camera when I went on
vacations. I did exactly the same thing you did. I photographed strangers in the places that I visited. And occasionally there would be pictures of my family in there.
I got the 4 x 5 in about 1981. I wanted the pictures to be about the house and the
home. The next year I slowly tried to integrate people into the pictures. The picture that
was sort of the breaking point was “Sunday New York Times.” Something about getting
that picture gave me a license to believe in something that I thought was interesting.
What slowed the process was technical difficulties. The lighting, the camera, but
also my insecurity about asking people to pose for me. That’s still true today.
Above: Slater, mom and
Dorothy, Mamaroneck, 2009,
by Gillian Laub. Opposite
page: From Tina Barney’s
book Players : Nuevo Mexico,
W Magazine, 2003.
laub: In Social Studies, you mentioned that you were afraid of the American family
becoming extinct. You didn’t want to see it go. I would love to hear more about that.
barney: When I said that, I was 28 years old. I watched the life around me that to
me was so perfect. I felt that friends my age didn’t realize how precious and extraordinary it was. It had to disintegrate and go away because it just was too perfect.