Elinor Carucci (Part I)
The first work of Elinor Carucci’s that I saw was from her project Closer. There were photographs of herself, of her then boyfriend (now husband), her period blood in a toilet, the delicate imprint of a zipper on skin. But what I remember most clearly are the photographs of her parents, especially the ones of her mother. A photograph of herself and her mother laying on beds across from one another. Her mother at the foot of a bed, her father in the background. Her mother in her bra. A closeup of her parents kissing.
It never occurred to me that I could take pictures of my family. My friends, yes, but turning my camera on people that close to me— somehow the idea seemed beyond intimate, too intimate.
In 2013 Elinor came out with another book, this one called Mother. The mother in question was no longer her own mother, but was now her.
I had my first daughter in 2011, so I was deep in the haze of new motherhood when this book was released. I have a fuzzy memory of stumbling, by chance, into a show of the work, most likely at Edwynn Houk, the gallery where Elinor shows. That same intimate and precise gaze which she had used to look at her parents and her partner had now been turned onto her children (which is kind of what happens, isn’t it?) All of the beauty, and intensity, and raw humanity of the experience of being a parent to young children was on display, from the bloody noses and snot streaked faces, to the profound, quiet concentration of cutting their little nails.
Obviously given where I was in my life at that point, I found the work incredibly moving. But I suspect I would have reacted strongly to it no matter when I encountered it. The dramatic lighting and her attention to the tiny details commands your attention. She is paying attention to these tiny moments and emotions that make up a life, and so should you.
When I conceived of Perefct Days, work like this was exactly what I had in mind, and women like her were exactly who I hoped to talk to. I wanted to know what her experience has been like, making work that has centered so closely around her family. How has the world received art that is so unapologetically feminine? What have been her experiences been like, balancing being an artist and a mother? How has she reconciled all the pieces of herself?
I worked with Elinor once previously, when she contributed work to a portfolio I put together in Dossier of nudes of women shot by other women, so I dug out her email address and reached out. I said something in my email to the effect that historically there has been such negative value placed on creative projects that address the experiences of women, and the question of motherhood in particular. While these are weighty subjects in the lives of every woman I know, there still seems to be a sense that these are not “serious” subjects, and that exploring them creatively renders the work, and the artist, “unserious.”
She replied almost immediately, quoting that line of my email and saying that she felt "strongly and angrily" about what I had mentioned, and invited me to come over and talk.
I came to her house on a summer morning, just a few days before leaving for vacation. By strange coincidence, she lives in a building in Chelsea my closest friend used to live in, in the apartment right upstairs. We also discovered during the course of our conversation that she was the belly dancer the night my partner and I had our first date at a restaurant in Soho, more than 20 years ago. The world is so small sometimes.
Our conversation went on for two hours, and the length and depths of it is one of the reasons this project hasn’t launched sooner. First it had to be transcribed, then I had to edit it, then we were moving… the summer went on, it sat on my desktop, and I didn’t get the site up because I didn’t want to do so without it. It felt like an essential piece of putting this into the world.
In the end of August we moved, and finally, finally, after my kids started school, I had the bandwidth to tackle editing our rambling conversation. What I found is that it had touched so many of the subjects that I am interested in exploring with Perfect Days, from questions of balance to those of identity, reconciling the disparate parts of oneself that can often be at odds. In short, it was worth the wait.
Because of sheer length, the interview is presented in two parts. Part Two will run shortly.
A retrospective of Elinor Carucci’s work is currently on view at The Cortona Festival, through September 30, 2018. Her newest work focused on midlife, and while we spoke about it during our conversation, she asked me to edit that part out. Maybe a second conversation will be in order.
Above: Holding Emanuelle, 2008. All photographs courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery.
Skye Parrott: I want to talk a bit about your background. Can you tell me about how you started taking pictures, about how you came to be a photographer?
Elinor Carucci: I was fifteen years old when I started as a photographer, but I was in the arts from a very, very young age. I had been playing the piano for thirteen years, and I studied theatre and drama. So I knew I was an artist, but I struggled to find my path and my voice.
SP: Were your parents creative?
EC: No. Not at all. My father worked in the construction business, and my mom didn’t work back then. But my mom was a very typical Jewish mama. She had me very young, and she was very ambitious for me. So she put a lot of effort into my artistic education. I went to concerts from the age of three, listened to classical music, and there were art books. It was taken seriously. I mean, here in Manhattan, in 2018, she would blend it, but in Israel in the ‘70s… she was very unusual.
SP: Do you feel that she pushed you towards art because it was something that she would have done if she’d had the chance? Or was it because of something she recognized in you?
EC: She was not artistic at all. If anything, my father was. He came from a very low-income family, so he never even had the chance to finish high school. But he is artistic. She isn’t, but she recognized that I was artistic, and I think she wanted me to do something she didn’t get to do, not in terms of art in particular, but in terms of fulfillment and achievement. And feminism. My parents raised me so feminist. I didn’t even know it was feminist until I got older and started studying about feminism and realized oh, this was just my upbringing.
SP: I had a similar experience. I was raised by a single mother, so I just thought, women do everything. I didn’t even know that it was unusual. That was just how it was.
EC: Yes. My mom always told me, you have to make your own money. And my dad, even though he came from a very simple and traditional family, he raised me to know I could do anything I wanted. So, one afternoon, at the age of 15, I took my father’s camera — he was an amateur photographer – and I remember the day and I remember the picture. Holding the camera, I just walked in Mom’s bedroom – she was waking up from a nap – and I started taking some pictures of her. And it was the most amazing thing that happened to me. First of all, all of a sudden I saw so much more in my mom. I saw her as a woman, her as a sexy woman, her weaknesses. She was so glamorous and seemed so strong to me. I suddenly could see many aspects of her. And looking at the pictures I took of her brought us closer together. And then I started to photograph the rest of the family and I just felt, this is something I love. And it is the right time for it, the time you come out of your insecure shell…
SP: That age is when I started taking pictures too. There’s something quite powerful in it, because you can be someone different behind the camera.
EC: I really felt more like I could see more. Suddenly I could see more of my mom. Then I started photographing my mom and dad. I could see so much more of them. And even today, even when I shoot for magazines, and I come to a family, and I say hello, and I sit and talk to them, it’s not until I start taking pictures… I don’t even know how to explain it, because it’s just a piece of plastic. What happens there, when I start photographing someone, it’s like I see and feel and understand so much more… So I stared photographing my family, and then I went to New York, to visit my aunt who lives here in Queens and went to ICP, and I was there in the book store with all the books, and I said I want to be a photographer. And I was maybe 17. So, that’s how it started.
SP: I had a similar experience. I went to see Nan Goldin’s show I’ll Be Your Mirror at the. I got a camera that summer, and I had just started to take pictures, and then I saw that show. And I remember just standing there and looking up at the photographs and thinking, this can be art?
EC: I remember that show. It was so amazing. That was right when I moved to New York.
SP: So you decided you would be a photographer. Then what happened?
Left: Bloody nose, 2011. Right: For one bite I bought you a pretzel?, 2012
EC: Then I did Israeli army for two years. In Israel it’s mandatory, for both men and women. The army was difficult for me. And it’s not like a job where you can quit. You have to do it. And that was really, really hard for me. I really didn’t like the army. You lose your freedom. And I made some choices that I would have made differently today. But it was good because it toughened me up. Even today I can see it. I’m not spoiled. I can eat anywhere, sleep anywhere, shower anywhere, and it was the army that did this. You have to survive, and I did get stronger. And then I did my BFA, and then I came to New York.
SP: When you came to New York, what kind of work were you making? Were you starting to make work around your family?
EC: It was my parents, and me and my boyfriend. And some of those images from Closer, my first book, started at school. When I started school, I didn’t want to photograph myself or my family, because I wanted to be taken seriously. So I tried to do different things, and then one of my professors said, you want to talk about things that are universal. Go back to photographing your family. Everything you’re trying to talk about, it’s there. And he kind of gave me the green light. I thought, is this artsy enough? I was so young and insecure, coming to art school, and it’s the best art school in Israel, and everyone is so talented. So he told me to go back there, to start from there.
SP: When you came to New York, was teaching always part of the plan, or was that a means to an end?
EC: No. It took a while until I started teaching. When I came to New York, my only income for the first six years was working as a professional belly dancer. So shooting for magazines and teaching came a little later.
SP: What was your experience like doing that? Once I had a daughter, I feel like it made me think differently about the choices I made, and how they affected my life and the person I’d become. And it also made me think about the choices I felt like I had to make, both the limitations I hadn’t seen of being a woman, and also the benefits of it.
EC: This is such a question now, with #MeToo. The benefits I’m even nervous to talk about. A part of me feels, don’t take those away. And then I think I’m old fashioned to think that way. Yes, we have the glass ceiling. And definitely, it’s much more challenging in terms of professional achievement, trying to be a parent and have a career. There is no doubt. But we also sometimes have privileges – the privilege of deciding that we don’t want to work for a while, for example. Not that there isn’t a price for that, but it’s something men have less. I never took it, I’m always working, but when it’s hard in the art world and I get discouraged and feel that it’s so cruel that I can’t handle it, I think, I can’t do it any more. I just want to be a stay-at-home mom. And it was also confusing, when I became a mother, to meet the stay-at-home mothers and to see that they’re not uneducated, that they’re not necessarily miserable, often they’re very happy. Some of them are very fulfilled and some of them are feminists. Before I met those women I felt in a very limited and clear way, that there are the women who fulfill themselves, who have careers, and there are the women who don’t. And it’s just not true. It’s much more complicated. It’s not black and white. Most of us are in the gray… So even things like that, or even things like flirting, it just feels right now, and I’m sure that it will eventually balance out, that everything … like wearing high heels - and I hate high heels - but even wearing high heels is a negative thing and is being questioned.
SP: I never considered that staying at home was a possibility for me. I never even asked myself the question. The way I was raised, you were going to have a career and fulfill yourself through that. And then the thing that I bumped into – I love my work and without it… I have a one-year-old now, so for the past year and a half I have been deeply in the baby thing, and when you have defined yourself by your work, it’s hard not to feel lost in that. You find yourself wondering, who am I? What am I doing?
EC: You feel like it will not wait for you. That if you wait too long you will vanish, your whole career will be gone.
SP: At the same time, too, there’s this deep satisfaction in caring for children and caring for your family, and it’s like this pull to do your work… Before I had kids I would not have expected the level of internal conflict I’ve experienced.
EC: And I feel that this is where feminism …
SP: Sometimes I feel as though the message I’ve gotten is that women need to do everything, and that has actually taken something away…
EC: And it doesn’t have to. For me, feminism is appreciating the role of fathers and mothers in our society. It can’t be that we just appreciate the professional and that we don’t appreciate, respect, people who decide that the want to care for their children, to those who want to take 15 or 20 years of their lives to educate and to care for the next generation, whether they are male or female. This is where I wish that our society would improve. I would love to see society have the same respect for the importance of these role. When someone tells you, I have three kids and I’m- not even stay at home, I hate this word- I’m a full-time father, and someone else tells you, I’m a scientist, that the response would be, that’s great, that you would have the same respect for males and females saying these things. This is something I feel needs to change, the idea that if you stay at home and you’re a devoted mom, that you’re not a feminist… because it’s just not true.
SP: I think that’s one of the current conversations and shifts that’s going on. For me, in terms of the wave of feminism we both grew up in, that wasn’t the message that we grew up with. My mother got to have a lot of interesting experiences in her life. But my grandmother, at her funeral everyone talked about how creative she was. “Oh, she would make these beautiful dolls out of clothes pins, and she would sew and she would make kitchen witches out of dried apples and corn husks.” And I thought, this is a person who never had any opportunity to be anything except a parent. And she was an artist. She was creative, so she had to make things. She had to make art because that is what artists do, but she didn’t make art that anyone appreciated as art. And I see this as being the case with so much art that is considered “female” - crafts, and quilting. It is not thought of as art, because art is painting and sculpture and the things that men do, and these art forms are considered less serious.
Emmanuelle having her hair cut, 2007
EC: And also, because they are considered “crafts” they don’t get attention. I don’t think my work would have been what it is, the images themselves, if I hadn’t been given shows, and teaching, so the talents these women had weren’t developed to the potential that it could have been. Because once you have a show, and once you have reviews, all those things push the work forward.
SP: And you have a space. You have permission to claim the space for your work because what you do has been validated as important. And you block out the time and space – okay, this is your studio. You go there and make your work. This is the time you use for making work.
EC: A room of her own. And when you think about the history, women were only able to these things as a second or third or fourth priority. They had to keep the home, and cook and clean and raise kids, while men could be artists and devote time to developing their art.
SP: So speaking of women’s work, did you always know that you wanted to be a mother? Was this something that you were clear on in terms of your path?
EC: Yes. But also, in Israel, it’s not so much of a question. At least when I grew up, everyone was pushed to start a family and have kids. And there is some bad to it, for the people who don’t want to do it. But I knew one only woman when I was growing up who didn’t have children. One woman.
SP: Did she choose not to have children?
EC: She was married to my uncle, my father’s brother, and they decided not to have kids, and she deeply regretted it. So this was the only one. It’s not like here, where you see women who decided not to have children and to have a career. It wasn’t even an option. As a 10, 15, 20-year-old, I don’t remember even wondering, should I have kids? It was only after I moved to America that I even considered that question.
SP: You were in your early 30s when your children were born. How did they come into your life? Was it a conscious decision? And what was happening to your career at the moment?
EC: It was weird. We had to go for fertility treatments, so it was a conscious decision. We tried, we couldn’t do it. I was just scared. I didn’t want to have twins. I didn’t have help here. I don’t come from money.
SP: Until I had kids I thought twins were so cute. Now they look so scary to me.
EC: It’s really intense. When I realized that it was twins, I really freaked out. I don’t know whether it was a coincidence, but just after they were born I had a very good year professionally. Many things I’d worked for for many years were suddenly happening, a lot of important jobs, editorials, solo shows. So, I wanted to take a year off, or a slow year, when they were born, but… Some of it was fear, thinking how do I turn down all those opportunities that I’d worked towards for so long. I’m not going to tell them no. And New York is not a place that will wait for anybody. And so it was a crazy time. I don’t know how I did it. I know that it’s a cliche, but looking back, it was adrenaline, and anxiety. I mean, where did I have the energy to shoot for magazines, to do solo shows, and I don’t have help, I don’t have assistants, I don’t have a studio? It was just crazy. Some of it was just the fear that I would lose my career, and all the things I’d worked for.
Left: Emmanuelle crying, 2006. Right: Father's hand, 2012
SP: The two years after my older daughter was born, I took her everywhere. The year before I got pregnant was the best year of my career. I was doing commercial photography, and fashion, and it was just traveling, traveling, traveling. So many of the opportunities I’d been working for were finally happening. So after she was born I just kept going like I was before, but I brought her with me. And now I look back, in hindsight, and I think, what the fuck was I doing, running around the world like that with a tiny baby? I don’t think that I had let parenthood change me yet, so I just kept going the way I had before I became a parent.
EC: I was fighting against it, in a way. No, I have to work. I’m the same. I think I did that until at the end of their elementary school, when my kids were 11. And then I started to really prioritize. I don’t travel as much. I was like, oh my God, I have seven more years with them, then they’re out of the house. It was kind of my midlife crisis. But until then, I said yes to jobs and I traveled and I multitasked like a crazy person. I never said no.
SP: I think one of the parts of having children later that can be so tricky for women. You’ve been working for this career, and just at the moment in your 30’s where it’s starting to gain momentum, then you have this question of children, and you have to pause it, or if you want more than one, then you have to even pause it multiple times…
EC: At least with twins I didn’t have this question. For me the first year was easier then the second, but the first five or six years were really hard. And then it got challenging in other ways. I feel like until the kids were eight or nine, I was more replaceable in terms of function. I could have my mom fly over from Israel, she could take over, or my aunt or even babysitters. Now, with high school, I have to see and feel how my daughter is, because no one, including her father, will sense what she’s feeling like I will. I’m not replaceable. So it’s easier on one hand, in terms of I don’t have to take them to school, dropping off, playdates. That’s easier. But on the other hand, when the physical stuff gets easier, the emotional stuff gets really intense.
(Part II will be coming soon...)