Last week, a piece of short fiction—written by Kristen Roupenian and published by The New Yorker—went viral. Titled “Cat Person,” the story centers on a series of encounters between a 20-year-old woman and 34-year-old man who meet at a movie theater, go on a couple of unsettling dates, and have startlingly bad sex. Fiction very rarely builds the kind of fiery momentum that “Cat Person” experienced after its publication, but the story struck a chord with readers of all genders across the US: at its core, “Cat Person” articulates common feelings of confusion, ambivalence, and (tellingly) fear that often define the contemporary female experience of sex.
All of this is perfectly encapsulated in a photograph by artist Elinor Carucci that ran alongside the piece. Carucci’s photograph has inspired a range of reactions: some viewers are disgusted by the photo, while others are adamant that it shows a sweet exchange. Personally, I’m fascinated by this ambivalence: the strong subjective reactions (and heightened emotions) resonate with the larger conversation about sexual harassment and assault occurring around the world.
Illustrating questions about control, consent, sex, and male/female interaction, Carucci’s image is the result of a collaboration between the photographer and The New Yorker’s photo team. Last week, I sat down with Carucci in her home to discuss the commission and the challenges of photographing such a tense encounter.
Cover Image © Elinor Carucci, courtesy The New Yorker
LensCulture: As a photographer who has worked with magazines for more than two decades, what makes for a successful commission?
Elinor Carucci: Without question, a good photo editor—and not just someone with talent, but someone who knows you and your work. I have been incredibly lucky to work with a woman named Joanna Milter over many years, both at the New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker. Right away, Joanna saw my heart in my work. Not many photo editors can do that—can work with you in a way that balances direction and trust. She came to my home, she spoke to my children…she made an effort to connect with me and to become familiar with my work, my style.
To have a continuing relationship like that with a photo editor is incredibly special. There’s something so right, really just magical, about a partnership where you both have deep respect for each other’s work.
LC: You just shot an image for the fiction section of The New Yorker that received a lot of press. Can you talk about how the commission came about? Did you get a call from someone at the magazine with a proposal?
EC: I got an email—nobody calls anymore! Joanna and Thea Traff, a photo editor at the magazine, thought I would be a good fit for the story. After they asked if I was available, they sent me the story, “Cat Person.” This was about a month ago…maybe five weeks ago.
When I got the story, I was rushing to get home. My arms were full of grocery bags. As soon as I walked in the front door, I dropped the bags and read until I’d finished the whole thing. I just loved it, for so many reasons. I loved the woman’s perspective. It said so many things that I feel I’ve experienced.
I actually also felt compassion for the male character. There’s so much complexity—you sense both of their insecurities. So I was intrigued. Soon afterwards, I had a conference call with Joanna and Thea.
LC: Did The New Yorker come in with an idea of how they wanted the image to look?
EC: In our first conversation, we spoke about different moments that could illustrate the story. When I read a story without a photoshoot in mind, I have a very different experience. When I read it with a photoshoot in mind, I have all of these visual angles appear in my head. I start to think to myself “what is photographable; what would look good?” Not everything will lead to a compelling photograph.
LC: Can you remember a couple of moments from the story that struck you?
EC: There was another moment that I actually photographed for the story. There is a bad kiss in the story, but there’s also a good kiss, where the male character kisses the protagonist on the forehead. They’re almost opposite experiences. I realized that the two kisses would represent going in two completely different directions for the image. With the forehead kiss, in that moment in the story, the female character feels something positive for the male character: he’s older, there’s almost something fatherly about it. I really related to both moments.
The New Yorker was also interested in the bad kiss. I was interested in both. The story is so much about attraction and repulsion that we needed to capture something like that. I remember so clearly from dating that you can be so attracted to someone, but then one little thing, like his bad breath, can immediately give you this feeling of repulsion. It’s such a specific feeling.
We decided to go with something that is very much my territory as a photographer: a close-up image with a lot of intimacy.
LC: And the two people in the image—they are a couple?
EC: Yes, they are a real couple. They weren’t friends of mine; I met them for the first time at the shoot. It was very important to me that they be a real couple, because as a photographer, like all photographers, I have my insecurities. I want to do the things that I’m good at. And I’m not good at everything! So working with models, staging situations…there are people that are more talented than me. But I know that when there is a real situation, I feel it, I connect to it. If I have to build something from scratch…that’s not me.
I also didn’t want to make two strangers kiss for hours! Some of the images are really intense. I was giving them directions like, “Put your tongue inside her mouth! Ok, no, do it more aggressively!” Also, the woman in the image had to be really young. She had to be around 20—the age of a college student. I did direct them, but because they were a real couple—they have been kissing for years!—it felt better, more consensual.
LC: So, you tried a few different poses, a few different shots? Was it always going to be that final, close-up composition?
EC: I actually had a few different shots in mind when I came to the shoot. There were a lot of kisses, but some even closer, and some pulled back…some with tongue, some without. I took a few photographs of him kissing her on the forehead, of the two of them embracing, of them on the bed…we shot a large selection of images.
The image that was published—it’s fascinating to me. There’s something very ambiguous about it. It can be interpreted in different ways, which I think is a key part of the story, too. There’s so much confusion on both sides. At the end of the story, the man calls the woman a whore. And that’s such a telling moment. But for me, up until that point, there’s a real ambiguity to both of their actions. I think this image captures that sentiment.
We’re living in a complex time. Who knows what a good kiss or a bad kiss is, especially now?
LC: For this shoot, there were many moments that were probably uncomfortable to shoot. How do you approach that as a photographer and as a human being?
EC: My approach to this is something I developed after many years. I’m very straightforward. At most shoots, I come with a list and I tell the people I’m photographing, “Okay, here’s the list: we need a good kiss, we need a bad kiss, we need a forehead kiss. I need your help, because I don’t want to feel like I’m torturing you!”
This is part of why I love working with digital. If we end up in a situation that makes them uncomfortable, I can say “Listen, we don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. If you want to try, I can show you the image afterwards, and if you don’t like it, I’ll delete it.”
When you’re working on a shoot, you pull out of yourself for a moment. These models were acting, you know. And I was working. But I think it was a relief for everyone when I said, “Okay, I think we’ve got it!”
LC: You photograph a lot of intense situations. Do you have any techniques for making your subject feel comfortable?
EC: Well, first of all, I was a belly dancer for 15 years. And I truly believe this helps me with my profession, because for 15 years, I danced for all kinds of different people. There was a lot I learned in those years about the balance between doing your thing and working and feeling the room, feeling what’s right and being respectful.
I know it sounds cheesy, but it also helps me to approach my subjects with love. It’s not like I love the people I photograph for ever and ever, but I really do come to photoshoots with a lot of compassion. I hate to call it love, but it’s a feeling and a moment and a sentiment that’s hard to articulate. I feel a strong emotion towards the people I’m working with.
So that’s not a formula, because every person is different, but it’s a feeling I have when I’m working that’s always there. Some people want you to talk to them. Others don’t want you to say anything. So for me, the formula is to bring myself, who I am—the belly dancer, the photographer, the mother, the wife, the daughter—to the photoshoot and just open myself up to the person I’m photographing and treat them with a lot of respect. You have to feel what they’re feeling and sense their comfort level.
LC: Do photoshoots often deviate from your expectations? That is, even though you often come with a list of photographs you need to take, are there situations where the list goes out the window?
EC: Again, there are no rules. That’s the hard part about being a photographer. I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) to just go with my intuition. If I see something else that is interesting, if something else swims to the surface, I take those photographs as well.
Sometimes everything you talk to the magazine or paper about just falls flat. It’s so elusive. I always let myself go with what feels good while also paying attention to my agreement with the magazine.
LC: Can you think of an example of when that happened in a previous story?
EC: Many times. We go with a list, and sometimes it’s the things that just happen in front of you that you happen to catch—sometimes those are the most powerful shots. There are images that you can’t anticipate, that you can’t imagine—but then they come out looking so powerful.
Great photo editors are able to recognize those moments too. Sometimes they say, “Those are great, let’s go with that.” Or sometimes they say, “Those are great, but they’re irrelevant to the story.” Both decisions are important.
LC: So, does The New Yorker own those images now?
EC: No no. They belong to me. The copyright is mine. And that’s something we should keep standard! I’m adamant about this with my students. It’s your art, so it should stay yours. Your photographs are your creation.
LC: As a woman in the field, and working with a subject like this, I’m sure you have opinions on what it’s like to work as a female photographer. I read something this week that made a distinction between mentors and sponsors. Mentors are people you can look up to, whose careers you see as models for your own. Sponsors are people who will advocate for you, who will pull you into the field. This article said that there is a lot of attention paid to mentors for women, but not for sponsors. This is inherent, it said, because there aren’t as many women in positions of power. Is that something you feel in photography?
EC: So, luckily this is not as true for photo editors. But it is absolutely true for museum curators. It’s such a male-dominated field. And then, the few female curators are afraid of being labeled as working with “women’s art.”
EC: This is such a tense subject for me. The museum world has to change. My sense is that they have finally become a big curator at a well respected museum, and they’re afraid that people will think, “Oh, she’s curating shows for women.” Some people see my work that way, even though it talks about a core part of being a human being. Everyone was born and has some kind of relationship, whether strong or weak or positive or negative, with their mother. So, the imbalance is really upsetting to me.
I struggled with this for a while. We all want to be successful with our work! I thought to myself, “Maybe I should photograph the way that male photographers photograph.” And then I thought, you know, the only reason why I am an artist is to really, genuinely, honestly say what I want to say. That is it. Even if I never get a solo show, this is all I can do.
And yet, I find a way to make my femininity into my strength. Sometimes for magazine commissions, they want someone with my approach: they want someone who is gentle, who is interested in intimate human stories, And here we are! That’s why I get these kinds of jobs. I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not in order to get a commission.
We still have so much work to do to fight this imbalance and these prejudices. But now we’re having these conversations, so that’s an improvement from where we were yesterday. Step by step, we’re moving forward.
—Elinor Carucci, interviewed by Coralie Kraft
If you’d like to see more of Elinor’s work, you can look at our previous article about her photography, which focuses on the images she loves that were cut from her book Mother.