Elinor Carucci (Part II)
Above: My daughter looks at me, 2010. All photographs courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery
Read Part I of the interview here.
Skye Parrott: As I was mentioning earlier, for me the experience of becoming a mother to a daughter was very profound. There’s no other word. It was very profound for me in the ways it changed my view of the female experience, when I started to see it through the lens of being Oona’s mother. Things that had never bothered me before - I grew up in New York City, so walking down the street and having men say things, it didn’t bother me. But once I had a daughter I felt differently about the experience, because I thought, I don’t want her to be objectified like this. I don’t want her to have to manage this. My whole experience of being a woman has shifted in so many ways. And I think it’s interesting because you have a daughter and a son, the same age, so they are having these parallel male and female experiences. How has this changed your experience and your thoughts about gender roles or being a woman?
Elinor Carucci: People talk about it like it’s a given, here in American anyway, that raising girls is much harder than raising boys. I don’t know if you hear it, but I hear it all the time. It is harder for me.
SP: What is more difficult about it?
EC: What’s more difficult for me – and you never know where society and the world end and you start – is that it’s more difficult for her. But is it more difficult for her because we’re emotionally different, as women, or is it more difficult for her because it’s more difficult to be a girl? And if it’s more difficult to be a girl, I feel very helpless. How can I fix it? Can I fix the world? No, no I can’t. I can’t fix the world, to give her a world that’s equal. And that’s difficult. My son also has challenges. But the pressure on looks, on body image, on being pretty, and on what you wear… and the social thing is so much more complex.
SP: I already saw those social dynamics in preschool with my daughter. One of the girls in my daughter’s 3’s class had a mean girl vibe— at three years old!
EC: I struggle with this question. As women, I don’t think women are meaner than men at all. So why are the girls more mean than the boys? What is it? I can’t figure it out.
SP: I think that girls' biggest power relies on social interactions. Little boys experience the world in a more physical way.
I will protect you, 2008
EC: But still, why does it the same complexity of emotions not lead to them being more compassionate? Where is the meanness coming from? It really bothers me, because I don’t think women are meaner than men. But I think this mean thing that we recognize in little girls, often we think mature women are being mean in this way when they’re actually being assertive, ambitious. And I think often women are afraid of being seen as the mean girl when they’re 35 and want to boss people around — not to boss them around, but boss them because they have to run an organization or a company. So are we more mean?
SP: I used to have all these ideas that everyone was made the same, and since having both male and female children, I feel like, we are not made the same.
EC: And we shouldn’t try to be the same. This is a mistake.
SP: I don’t think that gender is entirely some thing that society imposes on us.
EC: I agree with you. I think more and more scientific researchers are agreeing with us. Even treating cancer is different for the female body. We are not the same, physically or emotionally. We shouldn’t try to be the same in order to get the same opportunities. Because we’re not the same.
SP: That’s interesting in how it relates back to the #MeToo stuff, about the opportunities that come with being a woman, rather than just the negative experiences. There is a certain privilege that goes with being a young woman, especially an attractive young woman. There’s a power that goes along with that. I remember being 13 or 14 and all of a sudden you have this power because people are looking at you. It’s the first power you have in your life, and I loved it.
EC: Yes, it’s addictive. The power is real, but it’s temporary. You can choose how much of it you can use. Now that I’ve decided to stop dying my hair, now the streets are different. I feel invisible. And a lot is having gray hair. I look young, my body is fine, I’m in shape, and I’m still struggling with it. It started when the #MeToo movement started. That was my inspiration. I thought, fuck it. This is my hair. I wish it was still brown, but it’s not. So I stopped dying it. And now, even the kids notice it. We had an orientation at my son’s school, and I let my hair down and a lot of gray shows. And my son said, Mom, you have a lot of gray hair. Suddenly he was aware of it. And I didn’t know what to tell him. I said, yup, I have a lot of gray hair. But I felt that he was a little embarrassed by it, by my gray hair, and being there in a new environment he had suddenly noticed it.
SP: How do you feel about this shift in attention? You said you feel a difference in how you are seen in the street. How does that feel?
EC: I am still conflicted. I think we always want to be desired, as women. We always want that. Probably until the day I die, even if I’m 100…
SP: My grandmother was like that. She flirted with the young men in her doctor’s office, she would put on lipstick for them…
EC: We always want to be desired, sexually and physically by the world, because the world treats you differently if you are desired. And you see it as a mother, when you make your kids pretty, as a way to protect them going out into the world. We know there are teachers who will teach them differently if they are aesthetically pleasing, if they’re dressed well and their hair’s brushed...
SP: …the world looks at you differently.
EC: So it’s a conflict. And I think this is where my art exists. It’s a conflict because nothing is completely good or bad. And this was a part of my midlife work, this new body of work that I haven’t shown yet. It’s about that. And some of it is very liberating. I speak my mind more now. I am who I am more. I do whatever I want to do and I don’t do whatever I don’t want to do. So there is some liberation and freedom and acceptance and I’m much more relaxed. And some of it is very painful. It’s almost humiliating. Because I’m still here.
SP: I’m so much happy than when I was in my 20s and early 30s. You feel better in your own skin. The world’s attention towards you is waning at the same moment you feel you’re coming into who you are.
EC: And you’re like, why can’t something be just positive. Why does it always have to be complex?
SP: But conflict brings good things too.
EC: It brings good art!
SP: Right. Good art does come from conflict.
EC: Sometimes I try to understand, what do I feel? What am I going through? Sometimes I have to take pictures to understand what I’m feeling. I don’t know what I’m feeling.
SP: I want to ask you about the pictures of your children, in particular. When you first had your children and you were doing this work, you started to photograph them too. This is the work of yours I’ve seen the most of, and I think it’s really profound for the way it approaches the intensity of this experience and the intimacy of it… It really speaks to me because this is the age my children are. And you’re looking at your children as both part of you and as something outside of you. It’s quite powerful. Can you tell me a bit about this work? How did you start to make it? What was the through process behind it? And what was the reaction to it?
EC: I think that the first few images, when I was pregnant, it was still the old me. Something very profound and even extreme happened when I became a mother. First of all, I was in a lot of pain. I was emotionally maybe in one of the most intense places of my life. And in a way it was creatively very fertile. All of the pretense was stripped away. Every emotion, the love, had been taken to the extreme. Being human, the art… but the pain, the physical pain, the hormones… for me, the huge differences between what it meant for me to be a mother, at the same time my husband just became a father of two. Nothing happened to his body, he was not breastfeeding. Yes, he was working hard, but he was more or less the same. And you talked about it, but I think that in my twenties, I was a simple feminist. My generation felt like everything was equal, everyone got their degrees, but when it was time to become parents, the differences became huge. So I was experiencing so many conflicting emotions to their extreme. I also felt a lot of anger at all the images I’d seen. I gave birth fourteen years ago, so I’m talking about images from art history, all the Madonna and child… when your child is asleep and you’re having a good, magical moment, maybe it’s like that, but that’s 1%, maybe 2% of being a mother. Where are all the other moments?
Above left: Clipping nails, 2012; Above right, Brushing hair, 2010
SP: And now we all have Instagram, and all those images to look at, and the mommy blogs where everything is perfect. It has nothing to do with the actual experiences you’re having. There is an intense beauty, but it actually so messy…
EC: It’s messy, it’s raw, it’s physical. And I even remember talking to my daughter about this work, and saying, for me these are beautiful images. These are beautiful, they’re inspiring, they’re real. They’re what connect us. They’re the bad days and good days. And you talk about perfect days… I love this term, because it’s so charged. What is a perfect day? My birthday is on Monday, and I have a thing to go to at my daughter’s school, and an orientation for parents at my son’s school. And my daughter said, oh Mom, I’m so sorry, it’s your birthday. And I said, you’re sorry? It’s a perfect gift. It is a perfect day. It just takes a whole other different direction of what is beautiful, what is inspiring, what is perfect? And so out of this anger I was like, I want to take pictures of what I see and feel. I don’t want to make body of work that is just the surface, I really want to photograph EVERYTHING. Which was challenging, also physically…
SP: I wondered about the physicality of making this work. How did you make these pictures?
EC: The anger. The anger, and the feeling that I have to put out something into the world that would tell the more complex, more lyric story. For the first time it wasn’t artists and other photographers who inspired me. For the first time, I think it was other parents I met in the park, fathers and mothers, and there were even certain images I didn’t want to take, because I want my work to be universal, I don’t want to be this weird, naked figure. I wanted the pictures to contain other people’s stories in them. And I even remember asking a lot of mothers if when they pee their kids climb and sit in their lap, because I have a picture of that. And I was only after many mothers said, yes, they do it all the time, that I took the picture. And standup comedy was another inspiration for me. Louis C.K., especially.
SP: I remember listening to him when my daughter was first born with tears running down my cheeks.
EC: He was really one of the biggest inspirations.
SP: Someone was telling me a story recently about her daughter learning about bathroom privacy, so the mother went to go to the bathroom, and the daughter asked, Mommy, do you need privacy? And the mom said, yes, thank you, that would be great – so proud of her daughter. And so the daughter came into the bathroom with her and closed the door behind the two of them.
EC: (laughs) Yes, there’s no separation. And this is addictive. And part of enjoying this so much led to not needing so much time with my husband, sex or just physical, because I was so fulfilled with just the physical connection with my kids.
SP: It’s so physical, the experience of having little children.
EC: And the breastfeeding.
SP: Another older woman I’m close with told a me story about when her children were young, after a full day of caring for them, she finally had them asleep, and she sat down and her cat came and jumped up on her. And she threw it across the room, just like, please, no more living things touching my body. It’s really challenging for some people’s relationships. But I also wonder how it is later, as kids grow up and that physical closeness isn’t there?
EC: It’s challenging. And I think my husband gained me back because of the pain and emptiness I felt when they started to push me away a bit… my daughter…
SP: Everything is more intense with daughters…
Leave, Mom, 2010
EC: It’s so painful, because you’re never prepared for it. There is a picture here that’s called… I’ll show you, because it’s not, maybe, one of my best pictures, but it was such a moment that happened in McDonald’s, where for the first time she didn’t want me to go into the bathroom with her. It’s called “Mom, leave.” She got into the bathroom and I’m following her and she’s like, “No, Mom, leave.” I took one frame. This was another thing that I had to change. I would only take one or two frames back when they were younger.
SP: Were you always carrying your camera with you during this time?
EC: A lot of the time, yes. And just shooting. And because I usually shoot with lights…
SP: I was also going to ask about that, because clearly you have so much light in your photography. So were these scenes staged?
EC: I don’t know whether to call it staged. But I had to have lights for whatever it was that was happening. So my house had strobes in it. Permanently. Strobes with their accessories, and some of them are hand made accessories. And outdoors, I would sometimes have my husband help me and bring lights, and sometimes use an on-camera flash, which I didn’t like so much.
SP: Flash really changes the moment in terms of photography. I tend to work with no light whenever possible and if I have to have lights I hate strobe, because you get such a different reaction from them. It pauses the moment. Which I think actually you see in your pictures…
EC: I mostly work with strobes! It’s so interesting… It does create drama. The people who have been photographed have a sense of they’re on stage a little bit - which I enjoy.
SP: It’s funny, I never want that. I always want to be in the corner. I think it’s a more photojournalistic attitude. “Do what you’re doing, don’t notice me.”
EC: No, I work differently. I’m trying to intensify a moment, with light, or with extreme closeups.
SP: It’s such a different way of working… So we were talking about women’s work not being serious. When you started producing this work around your children, what was the reaction in terms of your galleries? What was the reception like when you came out with this work?
EC: The response was good. I had shows. I have a very supportive gallery, Edwynn Houk, and we had a show. But I feel that if I had made the same quality of work, and had the same wonderful reviews, but I had been a male doing different kind of work, conceptional work, or whatever, I would have had museum shows by now. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s not true, but I think I’m right. I’m trying to get museum recognition, big collection recognition, and as a woman, I find it more difficult. The serious people in the art world, the chief curators, the chairs of a lot of departments, the collectors - most of them are males. So if my work only appeals to women, it may appeal to half the population, but it doesn’t appeal to half the decision makers. And that makes things trickier in my world.
SP: It doesn’t appeal to those with the power to make the choices.
My daughter looking at me, 2010
EC: Right. Also, as a woman, I think it’s important to see that my work is not women’s art - it’s art made by a woman. We have a different experience in the world, just because we’re not male. When a male artist is making work, from Lucien Freud to Emmett Gowan, the work that he makes of course comes from the way he sees the world, but no one defines it as male work. When female artists do something similar, when they make work that has to do with people they know, with intimacy, with their family, it’s defined in a more limited way. And it will only be shown in the context of family, or mothers. That’s a problem. It prevents women from getting a fair opportunity.
SP: Yes, that’s a very interesting point. And it’s true of any work that’s outside the norm of white male experience.
EC: And I don’t want to pretend to be a man. Not because I don’t appreciate men and their work, but because I’m not a man. It’s not my experience. And I don’t want to be anything that I’m not. I don’t think that my work is particularly narrow at all. If anything, it’s about the microcosm of family, which everyone can relate to it. I hate to hear, or to be told indirectly, that it’s very specific, because it’s not. It upsets me and I think that it’s discrimination.
SP: You look at deeply universal subjects. But as you were saying, it’s maybe most universal to a segment of the population that isn’t the highest decision makers. And once women are at the point where they’re making decisions…
EC: Maybe they’re afraid. Maybe some are even more nervous to give me a major show in a museum than men. I’ve even heard from a few curators that they were nervous to be seen as female curators, because they, too, want to be taken seriously. So it’s a vicious cycle. And I do understand where they’re coming from, but it’s also very painful and disappointing.
SP: So then you’re looking for the very small segment of the male population who are sensitive enough to appreciate the universality of this work…
EC: Or some female curators who are confident enough in their job, or think that it’s important enough, to be willing to take the risk of being seen as a female curating, promoting, female work. But maybe it will come, a certain statement that this is not women’s work, this is work.
SP: What is your children’s relationship to your work - the work that you made around them, and your work in general?
EC: It’s very different for my daughter and my son. For my son, it’s simple. This is the work Mommy does. He thinks he has the best mommy in the world and everything I do is great. It’s as simple as that. My daughter… first of all, she has more of an understanding of the medium of photography…
EC: Is she more creative?
SP: I don’t know. She is a creative person, but I don’t know if she’s artistic or not. But she is an amazing editor. She’s my second set of eyes, she and my husband, when I’m editing the work. But growing up we had a lot of deep conversations about the work, about what the work represents, about what is beauty. And so it’s very different, more complex. Over all, the place she supports me from is more that she is a hardcore feminist. So yes, she loves me, but she supports me because I’m a woman with a career and even though she doesn’t always love to be photographed, she will let me photograph her. The conversation is deeper and more intense and we have arguments, but overall she’s supportive. And she still lets me take pictures of every aspect of her life.
SP: How do they feel about the pictures you took when they were young being exhibited? I think that’s a question a lot of parents who are photographers have, the question of privacy, of how much of your family you share. For me, when I share a photograph, the question always is, is it good to make it worthwhile that I am disregarding their privacy? And I try not to put anything out there that would embarrass them later. How did you navigate that when they were young, and how do they feel about that now?
EC: First I decided to edit out the nude imagery – of them, not of me or of my husband - for now, maybe forever. At first there was the guilt. And for the first few years the mother in me and the photographer in me, we had many conflicts. Now they live in peace together, more or less. But I would be feeling guilty for taking some pictures, that’s why many of those are one frame, where they’re crying or hurting or their nose is running, but it was so striking… so I had to become a better photographer, because I didn’t have much time. One frame, maybe two frames, and then I’d pick them up, already feeling guilty. And already there was the whole conflict about, is it okay that I’m showing private moments, such intimacy, without really asking them? Because even if I ask them, they’re too young to know. But that kind of questioning pretty much disappeared when I realized that today, we have struggles and issues, and photography is the least of them. It’s really not the problem. I think, and I might be wrong, that as they grow older it will have been an empowering experience of knowing who we are as a family, of being able to share our weaker or our more vulnerable moments with others, of not needing (I talk about it a lot) as an artist, as a person, to put on a facade, to pretend that everything’s okay. Not that we have to go out and throw out our problems to other people, but this is us. We love each other, the kids know that they’re the best thing in my life, and being a mother, for me, is the best thing that happened to me in my life. Yet we are imperfect and flawed, and we have our weaknesses, and some of it is beautiful and some of it is not, but I am not the kind of person who likes to live with secrets or facade. And even though they are different, and it might be something that was a challenging experience, it also gave them something positive, I think. I hope so. You know, with kids you never know. Until they’re older and they have to… and Sally Mann did speak about it once, like every child, we have to accept, within the limits of what is responsible, and that’s why I edit out the nude imagery, that this is their mother, the good and the bad. There is some good and there is some bad. I’m just another mom, trying to do a good job and staying true to who I am. And hoping to manage to bring those two together: doing a good job as a mom and staying who I am. It’s not easy.