Raw Footage

In Conversation With Elinor Carucci

by Madeleine Matsui

published September 18, 2015

There is a closeness to Elinor Carucci’s work. The proximity of her camera to her subject matter results in intimate images, close-ups of the most personal parts of bodies and the lives they index. Born and raised in Jerusalem, Carucci moved to New York permanently at the age of 24 after a stint in the Israeli Army and completing her BFA in photography in Israel. By her own account, Carucci discovered photography almost by chance, after taking pictures of her mother with her father’s camera. Family has continued to play a major role in Carucci’s work; her subjects mainly comprise her parents and twin children, whom she photographed over the course of many years for her latest book, Mother. Characteristic of both Mother as well as her earlier photographs is an unwillingness to shy away from the intensity and complexity of human emotions. One of Carucci’s most iconic images, taken in 2002 for her series Comfort, depicts herself smiling and seated on the ledge of a bathtub next to her mother, who is dressed only in underwear and is playfully cupping her breasts. Other distinctive photographs include her bulging pregnant belly, her armpits and skin, her menstrual cycle and ample images of herself nude among various family members. Carucci confronts experiences such as pain, joy, and love viscerally, unflinchingly, and thoroughly. The honesty in her work is mirrored in her personality and speech—candid, warm, and punctuated by an Israeli accent. The Independent spoke with her by phone from her home in New York about her upbringing, influences, family, and what it means to age both as a mother and artist.  

The College Hill Independent: The themes of womanhood and motherhood figure prominently in your work. Why do you think you are drawn to exploring these topics and how did you come to focus on them? 

Elinor Carucci: I think it’s hard to really know why any of us do the work that we do. It’s something that we’re just attracted to. I don’t know why I focused more on my mom. My mom was very open and she liked my attention. She was diving in deep with me in the process. My father was more introverted and private. Not that I love him less or am less close to him, I don’t know. I don’t know why I focus more on women. I guess because I’m a woman. Now that I’m a mother, like in my most recent book Mother, it’s something that I know. This is what I know, this is what I feel from a first-hand experience. I usually work from what I know most, where I’ve been the deepest. The most painful, or the most joyful to me personally. I guess that’s why. 
My mom is a significant mother—very unique, very unusual, very intense. I always say it’s like, why do you marry the man that you marry? We meet so many people. But there’s something; it’s like falling in love with a man. Of course you can point out his weaknesses but it’s the same. 

The Indy: One of my favorite images from your latest collection, Mother, is “Eden Peeking,” where you are seated and your young son has pulled down your underpants and is curiously and examining your vagina. I enjoy the innocence of the image and the look of discovery your son wears on his face. Your work is frank Are most of your photographs planned ahead of time or improvised? 

EC: It’s both, and everything that’s in between. Some of the work, I’ll take the camera out with me and it’s a total snapshot—but never the work that I’m in. The work that I’m in always has to be more planned. Some of the work is very planned. Let’s say that I know that I’m going to take a bath with my son everyday, and so before he comes from nursery school, I fix the light and take the exposure and prepare everything and get in the bath and have my husband help me. But whatever happens in the moment is the image. Sometimes I’ll start with what I planned but something else is happening. Some of the work is in-between. I have strobes always open at home. Something will happen and I’ll just turn on the strobe. I know almost every aperture in every corner of my apartment! You know, this is six, this is eight, this is four, and I’ll take a quick picture. But I did turn on the light or I did move something from the background, so it’s halfway between the snapshot and the plan. None of it though, is completely staged. I will maybe prepare the light, set the situation, but then let the life somehow continue in front of the camera.

The Indy: It’s clear from your photographs that you are very close to your family, and that your family plays an extremely important role in your life. One image that comes to mind is “Mom Hugs Dad” taken in 1994 where your mother is standing in her underwear with a full head of hair curlers, embracing your father, who is fully clothed. Though your work does feature scenes of familial strife that I think are familiar to everyone, in general your work often depicts a family that is very close-knit, perhaps an ideal vision of family. With family and gender as central themes in your work, do you see your artwork as having an explicit social or political purpose?

EC: Yeah, definitely. I do feel in a very universal way that I don’t talk about specific politics. But I do feel that I talk about feminism and also about the importance of family. Especially in America, I think it has sometimes been forgotten. Even geographically, in America, families are broken apart. One person is in the West Coast, and the other is in the East Coast, and the other is in the Midwest. It’s the beauty and the wildness and the opportunity of America. But it also has a price to it. 
So I feel that we have to have our core strength come from having a family, having a support. We have to stick together with the pain, the joy, the flaws of our family. With the good times and the bad times. It’s something that I really believe is important in the core of all of us. It sometimes frustrates me when people look at what I do and see motherhood and parenthood in a more narrow way, when I think this comes before talking about our political system. Who are your parents? Who are you? Who are you as a parent? 

The Indy: How do you think your thematic focus as a photographer has evolved since you first began working? 

EC:  I was much more innocent, in a way, with the early work. [I was] more looking at the work, searching for myself and what I feel with my camera. The older I get, the more I’ve learned and experienced. I’ve experienced pain and disappointment and despair. I’ve seen my body change and get older. I’ve experienced emotional crises and difficulties. And I’m also more opinionated today—I don’t know how bad it will be when I’m 64! I’m 44 now. The way it’s going I’m a little nervous. The work today is a little less innocent, less searching. It’s more opinionated, even angry, more in-your-face. I think it’s more intense and more me. On the other hand, there is a beauty to the early images of looking at my mother. A more admiring eye, searching for who she is as a person and not only as my mom. 

The Indy: What makes photography as an art form unique to you?

EC: I think photography is unique because it’s a lot about what the photographer feels and thinks and wants to do. But it has to be connected to the world, even when photographers build their own sets in their studio.  Even Cindy Sherman, who built sets in her studio—she has to be connected to the world, to her, to her age, to her skin, to how she looked when she was 20 and how she looked when she was 50. And it makes photographers connected and responsive to reality. It’s something that I love about photography. I can’t continue to paint myself as a photographer at the age of 16. I have to look at my 44-year-old body or face and photograph it. I have to go on shoots for magazines and relate to people, relate to the story, listen to every word and every expression they’re having and photograph them. It keeps me—and my colleagues—very much connected in general as artists. You are a connected artist if you are a photographer.

The Indy: These days, your work is collected and published by many museums, galleries, and publications. Has this popular recognition changed the way you work or your purpose as a photographer?   

EC: I wasn’t aware of any purpose when I started. I was just taking pictures. It also changed [when I was] a 15, 16 year old; and even in my 20s, I was very, very committed, but I was nervous that I would not be able to make it into a profession, to be a fine art photographer. Once I realized that I made it—I sacrificed and worked very hard to make it happen, I moved from Israel, and left my family, and came here—something happened. I knew I was going to be a photographer until the day I die. Something about the commitment changed my work.
 In terms of purpose, I don’t know if you can say this in English—when writers work to the drawer?—the fact that people look at my work, that there is a dialogue and an audience that responds to my work. Sometimes they share information from their personal experiences and lives, the purpose is really becoming more and more about this dialogue. About telling people that this is who I am, with all my flaws and imperfections, and beauty and joy and pain. And it’s okay. The purpose really becomes about: we are people and we’re allowed to have all those flaws and to go as deep as I can into what I see as the universal experience of being human and to open this up to other people as well.