Photography / Features

A Studio Visit with Elinor Carucci

4Share

When Elinor Carucci is behind the camera, the distinction between public and private moments disappears. For more than two decades, Carucci has offered an unflinching look into her personal life as she left her family in Jerusalem, moved to New York City, and raised a family of her own. Carucci’s work has been celebrated for its transformation of the oft-overlooked details of everyday life into compelling expressions of emotion and intimacy.

Photographs © Elinor Carucci

Carucci was awarded the International Center of Photography Infinity Award for Young Photographer in 2001, Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002, and NYFA Fellowship in 2010. Her work can be found in numerous museum collections including The Museum of Modern Art, The Jewish Museum, and Brooklyn Museum. She has held teaching positions at the School of Visual Arts (NYC), International Center of Photography, Harvard University, and Princeton University. Carucci has published three monographs to date: Closer (Chronicle, 2002), Diary of a Dancer (Steidl, 2006), and Mother (Prestel, 2013). I visited Elinor at her studio in Chelsea to discuss her work and process.

Mother puts on my lipstick, 1993; Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery

B&H: The earliest photographs that you made were of your mother. Today, some of your most recognizable images you took as a mother. Has this role reversal changed the way that you approach your work?

Carucci: Some things, at the very basic core of what I do are the same. I am going after something that is very personal in order to find universal meaning. Families are microcosms. In them, you can find almost the entire spectrum of emotion and feeling. That has not changed. However, becoming a mother and growing older has made me see more of the complexity of things compared to when I was younger taking photographs of my mother.

Your depiction of motherhood is different than one might expect.

I wanted to fight against the cliché imagery that you often find in art or photography—the idealized and romanticized Madonna and Childs. Not that I don’t have moments that are romantic and beautiful, but there is so much more to motherhood—and fatherhood. Of course, I have more access to motherhood. I hope that my work is relatable not only to mothers and fathers but to everyone.

Eden crying, 2006; Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery

Intimacy is an enduring theme in your work. Is it possible to be fully present in a moment while taking a photograph? Does your camera ever become an obstacle for maintaining closeness with your subject?

In the short term, with respect to the technical aspects, sometimes yes. In the long term, it definitely brings me closer to the person. I was photographing my daughter and got lazy for a couple of weeks. I felt like I needed to start photographing again to be closer to her—to see more of her and let her be my muse. Once you start photographing a person, especially over time, you learn more about them. You are giving them a stage and asking them to tell you who they are. It makes the relationship more intense, more familiar.

Does taking photographs of your family knowing that they may end up in a museum collection or a book affect what you choose to shoot? Have you ever taken a photograph and then decided that it is too personal to share?

No. I have always taken photographs to initiate a dialogue. There is a Hebrew expression, “writing for the drawer,” that describes writers who never publish their work. I don’t think I could have done that. It is what pushes me deep into my own life. For me, and luckily, my husband as well, nothing is too personal. However, if it is a photograph of somebody else I might—my mom has vetoed some images in the past. If my daughter or son doesn’t want something to be photographed, then I might beg them—but ultimately, I respect their wishes. Someone was speaking about my work once and said it was so courageous. It is not courageous, it is liberating.

Summer, 2011; Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery

Contemporary photographers who choose to focus on their families tend to either borrow the snapshot aesthetic of the family photo album or embrace rigorous, even theatrical compositions. Your work has a foot in both camps.

I love both. Sally Mann and Nan Goldin are my heroes; their photographs present the two extremes. Goldin was a pioneer in bringing snapshots into museums. Sally Mann would put hours and hours of work into her photographs. It was never a decision; it’s just the way that I work. Some days I am more “snapshot” and other days I can spend hours on a single photograph.

I feel like you must live on a movie set to create the type of work that you make. What is your working process like?

I’m not one of those people who needs to have a camera all of the time. A week can go by or even two weeks if I am bad. I shoot with lights so when I do photograph I try to prepare ahead of time. I have the Profoto B1 lights, which are easy to move around.

Red curtain, 1995; Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery

In Closer, you used natural lighting in very dramatic ways. Why did you begin including artificial light in your work?

Two things happened. First, I left Israel where there is much more natural light. The light is stronger and there are many more windows than there are in most apartments in New York. The other thing that happened was around 1998-9 when I began shooting for magazines. I started working with an assistant who taught me a lot about lighting that I did not know when I was working on Closer.

How was it navigating the New York art world as an outsider, not only to the city, but to the country?

Painful. It was really hard—but the good thing about it today is that I can really relate to my students [from other countries]. From going to the doctor to writing cover letters—the little things most people don’t think about. You don’t know the system. Some days you feel very fragile and other days you have your strength. My mother was very supportive and I have my aunt and cousins here so I wasn’t completely alone.

When you are sequencing your photographs for a book or an exhibition, what is your mindset? Are you looking for formal continuity? Narrative cohesion?

With books, it is a collaboration with the editor. I prioritize the good, interesting pictures that can stand on their own. This is the number one thing that leads me. But some pictures that help tell a story can find their way into a book, as well. It also depends on how much space I have. If I am putting together work for a show where I only have ten large images, it will look different than if I can show thirty small images. It depends on the avenue and the format—if it is a book with other photographs, a group show, a solo show, etc.

Emmanuelle’s face in my hand, 2008; Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery

Some of the most jarring transitions in your work occur between extremely sharp photographs and blurry images. Many photographers I know would have more anxiety over showing a blurry photograph in a gallery than one with very personal content.

Blur is a part of life. Some people create in a very coherent way. Some work that is very coherent to me can be almost repetitive at some point. But I want my work to feel like my life. Some moments are very still and sharp; others have a lot of movement and blur.

When Closer came out, there was no Facebook or Instagram; “selfie” was not in the dictionary. How do you think social media has affected the way that members of the latest generation represent themselves and their families?

I think it is very superficial—it is very much the façade. There are many more pictures of everybody. When I photograph my kids’ friends, they immediately strike a pose and I’m like, “No, stop!”  But sometimes I take those pictures because this represents something about who they are and their generation. I don’t know if consuming images in the way that we do via Instagram is a good thing. Swiping through images, “liking” and “not liking.” I don’t know if people can switch between the mode of “I’m being entertained now” and “I’m stopping for a minute, or ten minutes to look at something.” When I’m on Instagram, which my daughter forced me to join a year ago, I feel like there could be a masterpiece on there and I can totally miss it. I don’t like the way that it makes us consume and get used to seeing images. It is fine to watch the news but you also want to watch a full interview with a politician. One doesn’t mean the other can’t exist.

One could lead to the other.

Will it make someone curious enough to go see my show? I don’t know. I’m not sure if people will go see shows in twenty years. I read recently that e-books are suffering because millennials want print books. They are picking up books to take a break from screens. I don’t care if my work is being seen on a screen or in a book or slideshow. As long as I have someone’s attention, I am happy.

We will never speak to each other ever again, 2010; Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery

Your work spans the shift in the photography world from analog to digital. How was that transition for you?

Very challenging. I love digital. I don’t miss film. Other than the highlights—or the ability to capture a small ray of light—in digital it does not look as nice. It was difficult at first to make digital prints that were as good or better than those that I had been making in the darkroom. It was a learning curve. I took some workshops and then Matthew Baum, who is now one of my best friends, gave me private lessons. I love digital for so many reasons. As somebody who takes self-portraits, I won’t spend a whole roll of film shooting myself out of focus. It also allows for more of a collaboration with the people I shoot—especially for sensitive situations for editorials. In some cases, I will show the people I am shooting the images and they are uncomfortable with one I can delete it. I had a shoot once where I couldn’t show faces—so it helped to be able to show the images to my subjects during the shoot. It helps with the collaboration and builds trust. I’m not doing this during every shoot because it is very time consuming but it can help in some cases.

Revlon, 1997. Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery.

What are your essential pieces of gear?

I use a Canon 5DS with three lenses: 24-70mm f/2.8L, 100mm f/2.8L, and 28mm f/1.8. The 28mm is not a good lens. I wish Canon would add a 28mm to the L line. For lights, I have the Profoto B1s and a number of modifiers.

What’s next?

I am back to photographing my children and their friends as they are becoming teens. I am also working on a project about midlife.

Do you find photographing your children as they grow older more challenging than when they were young?

Yes, but on the other hand they develop their personalities. They are blooming and they bring more to the picture. In a way, they are opening up to me. I learn more about who they are and their lives. In Mother, especially in the first few years, I felt that I had become three people. It was my kids and I in a bubble. Even my husband was not there. Now I follow them not only into their world but also into America—the middle school that I never went to, the high school, the ultimate Frisbee games. They are leading me not only to the journey of who they are but also into the society that I moved into in a way that I wouldn’t otherwise experience.


Cory Rice

Elinor Carucci

Elinor Carucci is represented by Edwynn Houk Gallery. A wider selection of her work can be found on her website. She will be leading a workshop at the Center for Photography at Woodstock 19-20 August 2017.

This article is the first in an ongoing series of interviews with NYC-based artists focusing on contemporary photographic practices.

Items discussed in article

Discussion 4

Add new comment

Add comment Cancel

Very engaging interview. I'm familiar with Carucci's earlier photographs but hadn't seen her more recent work. Nice to hear her thoughts on them.

Thanks, Steve.

Love her work. Very nice interview Cory

Thanks, John.

Close

Close

Close