Elinor Carucci’s Theater of Everyday Life

Elinor Carucci, Bath, 2006

“Our body is not in space like things; it inhabits or haunts space. It applies itself to space like a hand to an instrument . . . it is our expression in the world, the visible form of our intentions.” Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Theatricality in photography is as old as the medium itself. Hippolyte Bayard, one of the unacknowledged inventors of the medium was so distraught by Daguerre’s 1839 public announcement of the Daguerreotype, eclipsing his own process, that he staged false evidence of his own death in Self-portrait as a Drowned Man. The camera frames the world, inviting a directorial approach for which the photographer must cast the actors. Photographers of all sensibilities and practices have integrated theatricality into their work, sometimes surreptitiously. Julia Margaret Cameron sweet-talked and cajoled neighbors, friends and even her domestic help, to star in her allegorical tableaux. When he needed a bit more narrative interest, the English photographer Bill Brandt did not hesitate to enlist family members as actors to enliven supposedly objective documentary images. More recently, photographers as diverse as Emmet Gowin, Eileen Cowin, Larry Sultan, Carrie Mae Weems, Tina Barney, Nan Goldin, Doug Dubois, Richard Billingham, and Kelli Connell, to name a few, have assigned roles to friends, family members or even themselves, in their exploration of real or symbolic familial terrain.


Hippolyte Bayard, Self-portrait as a Drowned Man, 1840


But more than any other photographer, Elinor Carucci has never veered far from the actual facts and details of her life. In photographs that are posed yet revealing, Carucci has staged the territory of domestic intimacy for almost thirty years. She has recorded the early years of romance and her close relationship with her parents in Israel; we can observe her making a living as a dancer and note her swelling belly when she was pregnant with twins. She fearlessly documented her post-partum body, the mess of snotty-nosed kids, and when her marriage was in crisis, she unflinchingly made images of anger, tension and regret. Her photographs might be described as ‘heightened reality’, lit, as they often are like scenes from a play. This gives them a self-referential quality — simultaneously candid and choreographed. She has observed that for her, what is truthful does not necessarily correlate to whether it was staged or not. In her photographs Carucci seeks what she calls ‘emotional truth,’ where authenticity and theatricality can coexist.


Elinor Carucci, My mother and I, 2000


Elinor Carucci, Eran and I, 1998

Hers is the theater of everyday life and it is deliberately circumscribed. Carucci works with the same core group of actors — essentially her immediate family playing themselves. When Carucci picked up a camera as a teenager in the early 1990s and pointed it at her mother, she could hardly have predicted that she was embarking on a long term project of dramatizing the quotidian; where ambiguous gestures and furtive glances that often pass by unnoticed in the flow of the everyday, are choreographed into images that are celebratory, yearning, or are crowded with ambivalence or grief.

Sometimes when directing others for a photograph, Carucci exhorts them to “step into the light.” Lighting is a form of dramatization. The strobe can provide a revelation or an exclamation point. Illumination pools around faces to emphasize a grimace, to isolate a gesture, magnify a moment, and separate bodies from mundane surroundings. A subset of Carucci’s photographs might be curated around the language of the hand. Maternal hands, the hands of insecure lovers, or ecstatic children, reach out to caress, to comfort, to point or push away. One of her most iconic photographs, Mother puts on my lipstick, captures a paradox of maternal concern. Carucci’s face is held in place by her mother’s left hand, as if to prevent squirming or escape, while the right hand presses a tube of deep red lipstick to her mouth. Almost ritualistically, the mother marks the daughter. The smear of color is a both a concession to convention and a kind of existential protection, a mask to carry into the world.


Elinor Carucci, Mother puts on my lipstick, 1993


Elinor Carucci, Why can’t you be nicer to your brother? 2012

In Why can’t you be nicer to your brother? we see Carucci with an arm around the shoulder of her slouching son while the she forcefully grabs her daughter’s wrist to scold her. It is a scene of near universal banality, a mother chastising her child on a street corner — yet the framing and lighting suggest that this is not simply a spontaneous moment of sibling disaffection. When asked about that image, Carucci described a kind of observational experiment in which she directed her husband to photograph her and the children every five minutes while they strolled through the city. Inevitably the children forgot about the presence of the camera and began to bicker. “It was a real fight but I am acting, I know we are being photographed and I turn my face toward the camera. So I am simultaneously trying to mediate the fight and thinking about the composition and lighting of the image. In that moment, I am acting, directing, and being a mom.”

Elinor Carucci’s self portrait Nursing bra can be found in her book of photographs, Mother, that chronicles eight years of her life beginning just prior to her giving birth to twins in 2004. The image is arresting in its unadorned and unromantic view of the demands of early motherhood. For those skeptical viewers, who may have dismissed her earlier books of photographs, Closer, and Diary of a Dancer, as the self-absorption of a young and attractive woman, Nursing bra is also a kind of declaration. Carucci’s eyes are reddened from exhaustion or sadness. The contraption strapped across her torso is reminiscent more of an inquisitional torture instrument than a kinky undergarment. A second photograph Pain V, from 2003, shows Carucci in a back brace encircling her lower abdomen; she bites her lower lip, riven by torment.


Left, Elinor Carucci, Nursing bra, 2005. Right, Frida Kahlo, Broken Column, 1944.

Carucci’s photographs recall Frida Kahlo’s Broken Column painting from 1944. Kahlo was in a brutal accident as a teenager, she endured multiple surgeries, wore full body casts and braces for months at a time and lived in pain for the rest of her life. Broken Column is a portrait of suffering – Kahlo’s torso is a crevasse revealing the crumbling structure representing her spine. Tears stream from her eyes as nails puncture her skin, yet she elegantly drapes a white sheet around her hips. When described as a Surrealist, Kahlo chafed — stating she painted not from dreams or fantasies but from her own lived reality. Kahlo’s paintings were intimately scaled, in size and subject matter. For Kahlo, history was not an abstraction or a melodrama with a cast of thousands like her husband Diego Rivera’s epic murals, but something that happened to one’s own body, in one’s own domestic space.


Elinor Carucci, Showing my pregnancy to my parents, 2004

The idea of the body as a sculptural vehicle and the home as a symbolic site for exploring and exposing cultural conflict, motivated conceptual and performance artists in the 1960s and 70s, particularly feminist artists. Photography became a primary vehicle to document the conceptual and the transient in the art of an entire generation of women artists, including Ana Mendieta, Carolee Schneeman, Martha Rosler, Adrian Piper, and Valie Export. In contrast to their male counterparts, accusations from critics and audiences of narcissism and self-indulgence often greeted their work. This was especially true of Hannah Wilke, who mocked sexist pin-up poses with self-portraits in which she is covered in tiny vulval-shaped sculptures made from chewing gum. Wilke’s work could be confrontational and funny, yet she was sometimes dismissed for taking advantage of her beauty. Twenty years later, when Wilke was dying from lymphoma, her body now ravaged by cancer and chemo, she again turned the camera on herself, as if darkly rebuking the absurdity of those sexist dismissals.


Hannah Wilke, left, S.O.S. (Starification Object Series), 1974. Right, Intra-Venus Series #3, 1992

Carucci is connected to this lineage of 20th century women artists who found deep and thorny meaning in the flux of the everyday. Within the theatrical and performative modes, photography has the power to blur the boundary between art and life, fact and fiction. To some extent, all photographs prove the line between the vernacular and fine art is tenuous, which explains much of photography’s appeal and ubiquity. Now with cell phone cameras and social media, we effortlessly alternate our roles as subject, viewer, and photographer; oftentimes we are all three in the same moment. Carucci was there before us; as actor and director in the drama of her own life, she proves that revelatory art can be conjured from the narrow confines of our homes and found in the modest gestures that convey the visible form of our intentions.


Elinor Carucci, Emmanuelle having her hair cut, 2007


This essay originally appeared in Dear Dave, Magazine #24