Elinor Carucci


Elinor Carucci, Eran and I, 1998, from Closer

Elinor Carucci was born in Jerusalem in 1971 and lived and studied there until moving to New York City in 1995. Featuring a tight cast of family members, her photographs thus far, have tracked the intimate details of her life, from early adulthood through marriage and children. Her images are at turns elegant and self-implicating, blissful and full of anxiety. For many years Carucci supported herself as a belly dancer, an experience chronicled in her second book, Diary of a Dancer. She has published two other books, Closer (Chronicle Books, 2002) and Mother (Prestel, 2013). Carucci’s photographs have been collected and exhibited by major institutions worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the International Center of Photography, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Photographer’s Gallery in London and the Haifa Museum of Art.  She is represented by Edwynn Houk Gallery.

This conversation took place in her New York City home on October 16, 2015.


MAD: You went to a school for the arts as a kid, was it in theater?

EC: I was in a music program in high school and an after-school theater program. It was very humbling. I was good enough to be admitted but once I got in I was surrounded by kids who were more talented and passionate. So I took an after school photography class in Jerusalem in a very small school a 20-something year old started, he became my teacher. Now it’s a big deal with a gallery and BFA program, and I am going to have a small retrospective there in December.

I loved photography like I had loved nothing else before. It was also so important that my teacher encouraged me. So at 15 after 10 years of struggling in the arts, I found that I loved something and that I was good at it. I could do it all day long; it wasn’t like playing the piano, which was sometimes like a duty I had to fulfill.  It was a life-changing experience.

MAD: In your introductory essay for your book Closer you write about picking up the camera at 15. What drew you to that tool in the first place? Was there an image or photographer whose work moved you?

EC: It was the blessing of boredom. My father liked photography; he was an amateur. I was at home one afternoon with nothing to do and I picked up his camera and wondered ‘what should I photograph?’ I wondered into my mother’s bedroom and photographed her as she woke up from a nap.  Something very magical happened. It wasn’t till later when I took Avi’s photography class he showed us the work of Ansel Adams and Mary Ellen Mark who especially inspired me that I thought about other photographers.  Part of the freedom of those early days was that I was just playing; I was not comparing myself to anyone.



Elinor Carucci, Mother puts on my lipstick, 1993, from Closer

MAD: That is such a wonderful origin story. You approach you mother, who wakes up while you are photographing her and you kind of wake up artistically in that very moment. Here you are with your mom who has given life to you, and while you observe her through the camera, they dynamics of power between parent and child shifts and you are set on a new, independent path.

EC: I never thought of it that way, but yes, it’s a poetic way of seeing it and it’s true.

MAD: Again in your essay for Closer, you talk about an image of your mother applying lipstick to your lips. You describe lipstick as a kind of protection. Can you elaborate on that idea?

EC: I am wearing lipstick now. I don’t wear make-up but I will put on lipstick before I leave home.  My mother is very glamorous; even if she were staying home she would never walk around the house without make-up. For some women make-up has a power to help them feel protected. Whether that is a positive or negative thing we could discuss for the next three hours. But it is fundamentally transforming and protecting. It was very important to my mom to be beautiful and before important events she wanted me to be beautiful. This is something I have accepted, fought and struggled with all my life.

MAD: The gesture in the photograph is both affectionate and controlling.

EC: Not controlling, it is the ambivalence of being a mother. I experience it now as a mother myself. I want to be the mother who lets her children be exactly who they are on the other hand you want them to have a good education, to have good grades, to look good because you know it will make their lives easier in the world out there. How do you achieve a balance between those impulses? I appreciate a lot of what my mother did that I hated as a little girl and teenager. I think she was trying to protect me, not control me. She was preparing me with the lipstick.


Elinor Carucci, Eye, 1996, from Closer

MAD: Another thing you write about in your essay in Closer essay is the paradox of specificity and universality in your photographs. You write: “The closer I got to the details, the more I zoomed in, the more universal the themes turned out to be. Moving in turned out to be moving out.”

EC: This is something I discovered as I began to show the work. My mom’s lips are my mom’s lips but it also about women. The close-ups are more universal because the gesture is not in the context of specific identity.

MAD: There is a lot of choreography in your photographs, not only among the subjects but also in how the camera moves in and out and between.

EC: I only use a tripod if I am in the picture, otherwise I hate using it. I want to move around.



Elinor Carucci, My mother and I, 1996, from Closer

MAD: I think most of the images in Closer are made in Jerusalem yet the outside world is distant; your subjects inhabit a domestic landscape, a familial terrain.

EC: The place is not obvious, but the light is of that place. I use available light in Jerusalem in a way that would be difficult in Manhattan, especially in the apartment we had before this place.  Israel’s sun is stronger and there is a lot of light everywhere. This also conveys the warmth and openness of Israeli culture, well, Israeli secular culture. So I do see my work originating in the Israeli family.

MAD: I assume you took some pictures outside that did not end up in the book.

EC: Not really, I think there are some pictures in the car. But I had to work within the home, within the family, to feel safe. It was only later after doing magazine work and having children, did I begin to turn outward, but it is still hard for me, after all the assignments I have had to photograph outside. My tendency is to be in my own world where I can go as deep as I want to go and dive in with a few people who allow me to get that close, which is really only my mom, my husband and my children.

MAD: It is almost as if your pictures insist that photography is a private act. I think most of us think of photography as some public thing, news, celebrities, social media, etc. But with you, even the camera stays home.

EC: That is my nature. Even when I was belly dancing for a living, I liked the dancing but hated the stage. I liked performing for people in their homes or even a wedding if it was in the bubble of their home.

MAD: Does your process involve equal parts seduction and distancing?

EC: Just seduction, not the distancing! (Laughter)

MAD: Isn’t it necessary to have some measure of distance just to be able to think about composition, lighting, the meaning of the moment?

EC: I know that many photographers talk about that distance, but for me photography is a way to connect. If the image doesn’t connect, or if I don’t feel connected to the moment, it is because I failed or the person will not open up to me. If I am not connecting, I am failing. It is only connection, seduction and openness.  I only work with one camera, three lenses, and one to three lights, so the technical decisions are simplified, becoming almost a part of my body, almost automatic, so I don’t have to think about it, allowing me to connect with the subject.

MAD: Do you pick up the camera to re-connect? If you feel estranged from a loved one, do you use the camera to find a way back to them?

EC:  With strangers, on assignment maybe yes, but with my loved ones no, I am connected to them.

MAD: Again back to the same essay, you suggest that there is an ethics in your photography, lines you will not cross for the sake of a photograph. As much as I admire that, I wonder if you ever regret not having taken a picture.

EC: I don’t have those lines with my husband or myself.  When there are too many barriers with other family members I just won’t make a photograph. And I do miss some pictures but I have to admit though, I do push the limits sometimes through negotiation or begging! (Laughter)



Elinor Carucci, Mother in Hall, 1994, from Closer

MAD: In Closer, there is a photograph of your mother on the floor of a hallway.

EC: Yes, no one ever mentions this photograph.

MAD: Perhaps it is a benign moment but I find it distressing.

EC: Its so funny you are asking about this picture because I want to re-scan all of the negatives from Closer and that was the one image that I could not locate. I was looking all over, thinking it was lost. I did finally find it but its funny you mention it.

MAD: What do you think of that image now?

EC: I don’t know. It was taken in a hotel and even though it looks like a very vulnerable moment, I think she was reaching for something in the closet. Why do you ask about that image?

MAD:  It is different from many of the other photographs.

EC: It is different; it is more voyeuristic.

MAD: The vulnerability is different. One can be vulnerable in an intimate setting and feel connected, yet here, there is a distance and an objectification of her experience. Maybe it affects me because my mom is elderly and she fell recently, she’s okay but it was scary. For most of our lives, our parents are so vital and such a big part of our notions of health, power and independence. So when one sees a parent frail, helpless or compromised somehow, it undermines our sense of psychological, emotional and physical security. The color in that photograph is also very different, I think it is kind of greenish and it does not have the warmth of many of your other photographs.

EC: Some images we take we don’t understand ourselves. I am trying with you to think about this image. But this was not a moment of fragility, I think she was looking for something, but I took it so long ago 1993 or 94, I don’t remember why. The only thing I can say is that my mother is a very strong personality and it was the biggest struggle for me as a child to deal with her. But when I started to photograph her, something happened; I could see her not only as my mother but also as a woman with vulnerabilities. It was comforting somehow and she opened up to me, so maybe that image is connected to my need to see her that way. I did photograph my grandmother when she had ALS and those photographs I never showed.



Elinor Carucci, My father and I, 1999, from Closer

MAD: There is an openness around the naked body in your imagery.  There is little hint of shame, furtiveness or even awkwardness. This is startling for some people.

EC: I think it is different in Israel, although that is changing somewhat and is becoming more conservative. I grew up in the 1970s and 80s and kids ran around naked all the time. And among women nudity was accepted in most secular and religious contexts. Being naked around my grandmother, mother, aunts and friends was totally normal.  I was surprised to find that here in America that is not true. Many of my American friends have never seen their mother naked, which was shocking to me. So I did not initially realize that my work was so different in that aspect. Israel is a warmer country and is more open physically.

We were an especially liberal family. I mean we did not live our lives like nudists (Laughter) but I saw my mom and dad going in and out of the shower, getting dressed and things like that. But in one image in Closer where I am sitting partially naked with my father was pushing it a bit, mostly because of the camera, I had to set it up and it added some tension especially from him.

MAD: Clearly your parents were very accommodating, but there must have been some push back at times.

EC: My dad did not want to be photographed naked. He was the perfect dad but he was not an easy person, I can say that with a lot of love. He comes from a poor family, he doesn’t have a high school diploma but he is a feminist in such a real way. He raised me with acceptance, he never yelled at me. Everything I did was beautiful to him, it was such a blessing.



Elinor Carucci, Nipple hair, 1997, from Closer

MAD: In reviews of your book Closer, was there any negative reaction to the openness to the body?

EC: Well there are always people who are not going to like your work. I remember a review on Amazon that complained that the bodies were not perfect and there were horrible things like nipple hair. (Laughter)  Today, my kind of work is not very trendy. Especially in art school students are not encouraged to do personal work, I think the trend is more conceptual and colder. I am trying to ignore that (Laughter); I just don’t give a shit. It’s not that I am against that but if someone is going to be an artist, already they have made a difficult choice, so at least make your work about something you care about. Otherwise there is no point, are you going to chase trends?

MAD: Then it becomes a game.

EC: Yes, but you need to be aware of what is going on, you can’t reinvent the wheel, but you have to keep your real voice, your true voice, in your work. Following trends in art because you want to get a gallery is not good enough reason to sustain you.

MAD: I was in school when Nan Goldin’s book The Ballad of Sexual Dependency came out. I immediately loved it, it was familiar because it was my tribe, not those people specifically but I was of that generation, it spoke to me. But it received a fair amount of criticism; some found it narcissistic, self-indulgent, some even thought it was too candid a portrait of too small of a world. And I thought ‘Duh’!  That was exactly the point, that was where the power of her photographs came from; she was allowing us entrance into a very private world of her friends and lovers.

EC: Narcissistic is a word that gets thrown at my work as well. And what I always say is that if I am an interesting narcissist, who cares? But if it’s boring then only the narcissism is left. I don’t care what the motivation of the artist is, if the work is interesting, if it takes me to places I wouldn’t otherwise see, if it touches me and makes me think, feel and understand, then I am with the work. An artist can travel the world to make their work or never leave home, like John Coplans who made amazing work exploring his own aging body.

MAD: Narcissism is a charge that gets leveled at women artists far more than it does at men. Especially women who involve images of themselves somehow, Carolee Schneemann, Hannah Wilke, Francesca Woodman, Nan Goldin…

EC: I hear it a lot from my students, especially women, who are taking my class because they want to do personal work, but they are getting the message, even from other teachers that they cannot photograph themselves, especially nude.

MAD: What a diminished notion of what art is or should be. Do we want to live and work in such a circumscribed world? It seems appalling to me.

EC: I tell my students that they both have to be patient and fight against trends, because trends come and go.  How can he concept of ‘motherhood’ is not valued as a subject, even when it is one of the most politicized and influential arenas of human activity?



Elinor Carucci, The first week, 2004, from Mother

MAD: Your book Motherhood was published in late 2013 and covers almost a decade of your life. Again, I want to quote something you wrote in the preface: “It took a few years for the photographer and the mother in me to coexist.” Can you elaborate?

EC: First of all, I gave birth to twins it was hard to do anything else beyond the work I was doing and mothering. If I wanted to photograph them it was hard to even leave them for a minute to set up a light or a tripod. Just caring for an infant or toddler is so demanding. To think about making a picture was a huge distraction.  I became very quick, take one frame and that’s it, end of the shoot. (Laughter)  So some of it was technical. Then there was the guilt aspect, the moral aspect. I would ask myself if it was OK to take the picture. I would see something striking to photograph but it was not me, my husband, mother, father, or cousin, the children are not adults who can give consent. The only reason I can photograph them is because they are mine, I gave birth to them.  As they got older I would ask them, negotiate with them if they said no, but they cannot really understand what I was doing.  Like any parent, you realize that time flies and they change so much and you just want to take pictures. These moments are not coming back.



Elinor Carucci, The drop, 2006, from Mother


Elinor Carucci, Eden crying, 2006, from Mother

MAD: The sequence in Mother is generally chronological, although there is bit of skipping around in time. I was looking at this particular juxtaposition of photographs on opposing pages. The image on the left appears to have been taken not too long after you gave birth, you are breast-feeding a very young baby and a drop of milk gathers beneath the other breast…

EC: You are asking about pictures no one else talks about, it’s really interesting, it’s not the same 12 pictures people usually ask about.

MAD: Well I was very struck by these two pictures together; the one on the right is close up of a child’s face who is a couple of years older. His face is wet with tears and his nose is running profusely.  So there is this juxtaposition of drips. When my son was very young I remember having stains on every bit of clothing. Everything was wet, drippy, damp or stained. I mean they generate an enormous amount of fluids that gush from every orifice. (Laughter)  There is a lot of beauty in your photographs, and tenderness but just as important is the very matter of fact messiness of it, the less-than-elegant aspects of having a body and taking care of other’s bodies.

EC: We are always covering up the truth of our bodies, we have deodorant, we pluck hair and wipe things away and all of that is even more intense with kids.



Elinor Carucci, Emmanuelle having her hair cut, 2007, from Mother



Elinor Carucci, Grapes, 2008, from Mother

MAD: Now that you have been photographing yourself, your husband, and your parents for over 20 years, is it getting harder to get your parents to cooperate with being photographed, in the very understandable sense that none of us really want to call attention to our aging?

EC: It is getting harder. I will never take a picture without my mother agreeing to be photographed for example. I am taking a lot over these last few years but there are more arguments over them. There may be more arguments when I show them and I might decide not to show them.

MAD: One of the reasons I am still intrigued with photography is that the ethical questions concerning representation come up right away and there is no formulaic answer, or clear line. It has to be reconsidered and renegotiated almost on an image-by-image basis.

EC:  With me and my husband Eran, it’s easier because photography has been a part of our relationship from the very beginning. Sometimes I learn things about him, about our relationship through the photographs. Like in the series Crisis, there is a shot of Eran sitting inside the room staring at the camera, I am sitting outside. We were close to breaking up in that period and he was telling me things through the camera. We have always connected through photography; Eran comes from a family of photographers. His grandparents were important photographers in Germany originally but then in Israel. So he grew up with photography. For our third date he brought me a darkroom. I am not a woman of flowers, chocolates and fancy restaurants. I don’t care about those things. But when he showed up at my door with his grandmother’s old darkroom and we built it in the basement of my parent’s house, I was in love with that man. This was the man for me.

MAD: What is the nicest thing and what is the harshest thing that people have said about your work?

EC:  I think the nicest thing is when someone says they were moved by the work, that it made a difference somehow. Sometimes people say my work helped them realize that they wanted to spend more time with their family. That is gratifying.  When my work started becoming recognized and I was achieving some success, some people back in Israel dismissed it saying it was only because I was a hot chick who photographed herself naked. In Closer only 20 percent of the images have nudity, but people only see the boobs and the ass and they don’t see anything else.



Elinor Carucci, Bath, 2006, from Mother