Born and raised in Israel and now living and working in New York, Elinor Carucci is known for her commercial work and her personal projects, which present stark and intimate portrayals of family, relationships and the changing, ageing and ever-evolving human body. Drawn to personal stories and dynamics, her work has appeared often in the New York Times and the New Yorker, where her images illustrate a variety of unusual or sensitive real life situations.
In Midlife, a deeply personal project spanning a 7-year time scale published by The Monacelli Press, Carucci presents her journey through motherhood, marriage, illness, love and ageing. Tracking the day-to-day dynamics of family life and the highs and lows of relationships, the book mixes candid snapshots with surreal and staged scenes. Interspersed with abstract paintings created in blood, Carucci creates a visceral, emotionally charged and startlingly honest document of her experience as a woman living through everyday change.
In this interview for LensCulture, she shares the inspiration behind this project, including the importance of confrontation and the desire for connection. Discussing photography as a conduit for intimacy and the question of authenticity, she reflects on the notion of family photography, her relationship to her practice and why the photobook is the ultimate form for her work.
Celia Graham-Dixon: Can you talk me through the provenance of Midlife? What inspired it and how did it evolve?
Elinor Carruci: The whole thing came about pretty organically. Overall, I’ve been working on the project for 6 or 7 years, but it was only halfway through that period that I realised I was working on this particular project. Once that became obvious, I started working with more intention. Working a lot with my mum, myself, my daughter and my dad, I became interested in these three generations and the dynamics between them.
Then, alongside this, I started to do the blood paintings, which was new to me—something that I’d never done before. I see them as emotional landscapes of what I was going through, especially after my hysterectomy, when I was thinking a lot about womanhood, ageing and where I was in my life. It suddenly dawned on me that I’d been creating a project about midlife. It was more of a realization rather than a set out plan; sometimes we choose projects and sometimes they choose us.
CGD: Towards the end of the book, there is an image entitled My Uterus, which pictures your uterus laid out on a blue cloth following your hysterectomy in 2015. This seems like a key photograph in the project, not only because of the significance of this event for you, but also because of what this image says about your desire to unashamedly explore, confront and embrace what it means to be a woman at this point in your life. How do you explore the notion of femininity in this image?
EC: This is who I am: I am a woman, I am a daughter, I am a mother, I am a lover and I am an artist. There is no other way I can explore something apart from through my own experience. If I want to say something deep about anything, it has to come from something I know and experience deeply. But the uterus image was a different kind of picture, even for me. It was funny because I didn’t plan to take it in that way. I knew I wanted to photograph it, but I didn’t want to do it immediately after waking up from a 4-hour anesthesia. That’s what ended up happening.
I woke up and was nauseous and overwhelmed, but when I realized they were taking my uterus away I had to take the photograph straight away! So the surgeon put it in a little plastic bowl and I just did it. I had to. It’s comic and tragic at the same time. I think even for me the experience was a little shocking. My work is often therapeutic and comforting, but this was confrontational. The picture is very matter of fact and direct and that’s exactly how the experience was for me: the end of my fertility.
We can often define ourselves by our ability to birth children and we sometimes fight against it as our definition, and yet it is there. It was a really difficult experience, to the point where I felt that it was hard for me to define myself as a woman and as a mother. Thinking back on it now, it seems crazy, because of course I am no less either of those things, but I had to go through a process of redefining myself. Like many painful things, it forced other parts of me to grow and develop as a result. This book could not exist without that image. And I was very steadfast about its title. This is a part of middle age for many women, more than people might realize.
CGD: In your practice, you trace how your family members have grown and changed over the years. A lot of your interaction with them must therefore be through the lens. In what way does photography help you understand or know your subject?
EC: Photography definitely helps me get closer to my subject. My ability to photograph my family comes from the fact the we have good relationships. I am conscious that the act of photography is a bit of a selfish one and it’s important that I make sure I’m a good enough mother, daughter, friend, supporter, so I can have the privilege of them allowing me to photograph them. I’m interested in the lives of the people that are close to me and the processes they go through: their emotions, development and challenges. Something really magical happens when I look through the camera, even at my own children that I gave birth to and know very well. It’s not that I see them as an artist or as an outsider. Rather, I see them more deeply as human beings and understand more about their lives.
I am interested in the microcosm that exists within family life. Everything is there: love, anger, connection, jealousy. I don’t think I could go as deep as I do with my work with anyone else’s life other than my own. It’s important for me to portray truth, especially when it comes to human narratives and stories. I photograph very personal stories for magazines, and I do feel that I touched a piece of those people’s lives and their stories, but it will never go to the same level or depth as it does with my own family. If I want to talk about family connection and human connection, with all of its complex layers, this is where I can take it from. There is no other place.
CGD: How does your working process for commissions compare to a project as personal as Midlife? Do the two feed into each other?
EC: My commissions are often real stories about real people and usually about more sensitive situations, so I think the two are connected and inform one another. I have developed a lot as an artist as a result of shooting on assignments. It has pushed me to learn more about things like lighting and lenses, but also about how to relate to people in certain situations and then maybe apply some of it to my own work.
I have been photographing my mum since I was 15, which has helped me learn the importance of being sensitive in my practice. In English, the term ‘taking pictures’ is different to what it is in Hebrew. You are taking pictures; you are taking moments of someone’s life. You respect them and don’t want to hurt them, but you also don’t want to just create pretty, flattering or surface level images. How do you balance the need to go deeper, to show something that’s truthful or painful whilst also showing love, respect and compassion for the person you’re photographing? It’s a delicate balance and I think photographing my own family for many years has helped me when photographing other people and other families.
CGD: Kristen Roupenian, author of Cat Person, the viral New Yorker story that you illustrated, has written the introduction to Midlife. Your collaboration worked exceptionally well because of the way your accompanying photograph drew on the themes of troubled intimacy, exposure and vulnerability at stake in the story. What’s more, the stark close-up and stripped back style of your image reflected the tone of Roupenian’s prose. Can you tell me a bit about your interest in this style and how you feel you have developed it in Midlife?
EC: This is really something I’ve been doing from very early on. I actually had to learn to pull back when working on commissions because my natural tendency is to look at things very closely and to seek intimacy and closeness with my subject. I know that ‘truth’ is a charged and sometimes problematic word when we talk about art, but I think getting close with the camera is my way of trying to see something truthful and real. When I spoke to The New Yorker about Cat Person, they wanted to use a close-up, which was wonderful for me because I love working in this way. The couple in the image are a real couple, which was interesting because they started out as strangers to us and then we began to speak about marriage and love and sex. Within the hour, I was asking them to do different things for the camera and shooting them right up close.
I am interested in vulnerability and I often feel that the images I create of my own pain and vulnerability are my way of reaching out to the world and asking people to connect and open up to me. We’re all imperfect and we’re not alone in our pain and imperfections. When I’m photographing other people and my own family, there is always this need to be authentic, and being vulnerable is part of that.
I think Nan Goldin talked about photography as a way of keeping things, but she also said that when she looked at her pictures, she realized how much she lost. I remember reading her words when I was younger and not fully understanding them. Now I understand what she’s talking about.
CGD: Midlife combines theatrical set-ups with candid snapshots and then the more abstract blood paintings, as well as close-ups. Can you tell me a bit about these different styles and approaches and in what way they speak to your overall practice?
EC: If I want to talk about different elements of life, I have to do it in different ways. Some things are best expressed as abstract or emotional landscapes, other things I want to look at very closely. There are some moments I feel would be best if they were performed. It doesn’t mean that these instances are more or less honest; it’s just about using different elements in order to tell a complete story. I fail and succeed in every format.
A snapshot I take can be false and tell a lie or it can bring something truthful and really pure into the work. It’s the same with staging moments, sometimes they feel forced and sometimes something very magical happens when people walk onto the ‘photography stage’. They feel a responsibility, like they want to say something about themselves or bring something to the camera. Sometimes this can bring more honesty. I’m not working on one thing at a time; things happen in different ways so I have to find the best way to make a picture.
CGD: It’s not just the images that have a theatrical elements; it’s also the titles, which might contain an existential question or something that was actually said between the people in the image. How do you approach titling your work?
EC: It’s often about what led me to take the picture or what happened at the same moment. It’s an intuitive process, but one that has a lot of thought behind it. The titles are my way of taking the hand of the viewer and showing them what the image is really about. I don’t want to tell the viewer what to think, but by pushing their attention in the right direction I am helping them explore what’s in the image, as well as what’s maybe more hidden or less in view.
CGD: How big a role did editing play in the putting together of Midlife and what do you feel working in book form offers to your practice that’s different to an exhibition?
EC: For me, the photobook is the ultimate form for my work. It’s the most important thing that I do because it really tells the whole story. Exhibitions come and go, but a book always exists and it has a life. It’s a piece of me and my life presented in the way that I intended it to be.
Editing is crucial and it takes a long time. I have shot digitally for the past 11 years, so the editing begins when I transfer the images from the memory card. I probably copy about 30-40% of the amount I shot and then I choose the images that seem interesting, make a selection for printing and then start titling the images.
The images are not presented chronologically in the book. I printed them all and laid them out in my kitchen and living room to work out what order to put them in. I already had a PDF, which I created very intuitively. This helped me start the process of seeing how things looked together. I didn’t want the book to feel medical or scientific: I wanted it to feel like a piece of life. As Kristen writes in the introduction, the image of my uterus wasn’t presented as a result of a narrative about my hysterectomy. It is just another image in the book—a part of life that I had to move on from.
CGD: What has the reception been to this body of work? In what ways has bringing it together been a cathartic process?
EC: The work brings about a lot of strong emotions in people. You hear a lot about youth or old age, but middle-age is often invisible, so I think people have felt that this work gives voice to that. The title ‘Midlife’ wasn’t popular with everyone, but it is what it is and if it turns people off, maybe that’s part of it.
As I get older, creating certain images and forcing myself to see more sometimes saddens me. For the first time in my practice, photography doesn’t always feel therapeutic. I think Nan Goldin talked about photography as a way of keeping things, but she also said that when she looked at her pictures, she realized how much she lost. I remember reading her words when I was younger and not fully understanding them. Now I understand what she’s talking about. Even printing an image or making final files of pictures of my dad means that I spend 3 hours with his face, which can get to me, despite the fact that I’m also comforted by it. It’s complex.
CGD: What’s next for your work, do you think you’ll continue working in book form?
EC: I think my work will always talk about human themes. I work with what’s the most accessible and available to me so that I can go the deepest that I can. I photograph a lot more of my children and as much of their world as possible. I’m Israeli and they’re Americans, born and raised in New York, so our cultural upbringings are very different. I’ll never be a teenager in America, so I’ve learnt a lot about this through them. And as far as books are concerned, I’ll do books until the day I die!