October 2011: Sabine Mirlesse In Conversation with Elinor Carucci

Elinor Carucci, Showing My Pregnancy, 2004 color photograph.

On September 15th Sasha Wolf Gallery opened a brand new body of work by Elinor Carucci entitled ‘Born’ – a series of images about her twins, Eden and Emanuelle and her first experience with motherhood. Known for her profoundly intimate images documenting her parents, herself, and her husband over the last twenty years, Carucci once again offers up her personal life in all its beauty and pain to be witnessed as one specific account of the evolution of a woman’s world and familial relationships. The closeness she confronts the viewer with is entered into, no matter how specific the scene, the collective experience of vulnerability and mixed emotion, opening the work up to be related to by audiences of diverse background for more than two decades now. Recently, she kindly sat down with me in her living room to talk about her latest photographs, her children, the experience of being in the Israeli army, teaching at SVA, and how she came to call New York City home.

Elinor Carucci is a recipient of the ICP Infinity Award in 2001, as well as the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002. She has exhibited in both solo and group exhibitions at a number of international galleries and institutions including MoMA, Gagosian, Edwynn Houk Gallery, The Haifa Museum of Art, and The Museum of Contemporary Art in Taipei among others. Her work is in the permanent collections of ICP, MoMA, The Houston Museum of Fine Art, and has been featured in publications such as The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Aperture, and W to name a few.

Carucci was born in Jerusalem in 1971. She lives and works in New York City and is currently part of the MFA Photography faculty at the School of Visual Arts. She is represented by James Hyman Gallery in London, Tavi Gallery in Tel Aviv, and SashaWolf Gallery in New York where her work is currently on view until November 5th.

Sabine Mirlesse: Could you speak a little bit about how you started taking photographs?

Elinor Carucci: I was fifteen years old. It just happened accidentally I guess—one afternoon with my father’s camera, he was an amateur photographer and he had black and white film, and I just picked it up and approached my mom—she was napping and had just woken it up, it was the middle of the afternoon and I just started taking pictures of her, and really got hooked. I was only 15 but I was already experienced with some other art forms and felt the bitter taste of being mediocre and not being as good as some great kid. I played the piano since I was 5, and I went to a music high school—a very good school—and there were so many talented kids there, more talented than me and not just that but passionate. I could see their passion and dedication and I knew I didn’t have it in me for music. Then I studied drama and theater, and again I felt I may have had a little bit of talent, but it was not—I did not have feel that feeling---

Mirlesse: That feeling in your stomach?

Carucci: Right. It wasn’t like that. So even though I was only fifteen I had already been witnessing this thing with other kids having this connection. I started photographing my mom… and took a class in the afternoon, and I was hooked! I loved photography.

Mirlesse: Was your mom surprised that you started to take so many pictures of her?

Carucci: She was, and still is, a very beautiful woman and when I think about it she was five years younger than I am today, young and beautiful—really gorgeous—and she had received attention for her beauty her whole life. I think in that aspect she wasn’t uncomfortable, I mean she opened up to me but I was lucky because she opened up to me not just to be photographed looking pretty, but she began and over the years only grew more able to understand what I’m trying to do with my work and she really opened up to me. I think this process brought us even closer. I spent hours sometimes photographing her and then looking at the pictures together, talking about what we would see in the pictures that we did not otherwise see of ourselves and our lives and our relationships. I was lucky because my first experience was a good one.

Mirlesse: Everyone in your pictures seems to be available to showing their vulnerability and I think that probably for a lot of people coming to your work, that that is something that truly sets it apart from perhaps a lot of other people who photograph their families—your parents are really letting their guard down for you—in ways that many people’s parents would never let them come so close with a camera, no matter how emotionally close they were—

Carucci: No, of course, it has nothing to do with how much you love each other—it’s about the person’s personality-- but also don’t forget it’s also about a difference in culture… the Israeli culture at least in the physical side is so much part of this. I mean, it is my parents’ generosity, but its also not such big deal to walk around the house in your underwear in Israel. So some of it doesn’t seem that crazy there because it’s part of the ease you have with the body as opposed to America.

Mirlesse: But regarding this level of ease or comfort in one’s own skin, or relationship to the body, I mean there are certain images that move a step beyond just walking around the house in your underwear, that possess a certain drama to them, I think for example of an image of your mother crouching nude in a bathtub, or you appearing naked before your father—to what degree are those perhaps more intense images performances?

Carucci: Nudity among women is very common in Israel. So for me, I didn’t feel like I was pushing my limits to be photographed in the nude with the women in my family and it was really a surprise for me to come to America and find out that some women have never seen their own mothers naked. That’s weird! With my father… I don’t know if it was a performance, but there was something about bringing the camera and photographing—I think there is an image where I am only in my underwear— so I am bare-chested-- or how do you call it? …topless I guess-- next to him, and I felt that I wanted to see what it looks like for me to sit next to my father like this. So I did feel like it was something that I didn’t necessarily do for the camera, but that once the camera was there it enhanced the situation, and that there was some embarrassment about this moment that I wanted to explore.

Mirlesse: Were your parents creative people while you were growing up? We you exposed to a lot of art?

Carucci: No. Not at all. My parents divorced three years ago and my mom started working in tourism, and my father has a taxi that he drives. He’s been in the construction business too. He was an amateur photographer as I mentioned, and he took really good pictures. I think that that is where I got my talent and my visual sensitivity—from him.

Mirlesse: What, if anything, did being in the army in Israel bring you in terms of life experience that you feel has impacted the way you see things?

Carucci: Well, artistically it didn’t bring me anything! But it gave me a lot, as much as I hated it. I really didn’t like being in the army. I didn’t like the strictness, the rules, or the loss of freedom-- but it forced me to grow up and mature and get along by myself in certain situations. I was very close to my parents and they were protective of me, and when suddenly you were thrown in different situations where horrible people are in charge of what you will do for the next year or two you just have to deal with it. It really broke me. My first month in the army I was depressed… like… extremely so.

Mirlesse: What was your department or specialization? Aren’t you assigned to a specific section..?

Carucci: Not at the beginning. In the beginning you are all thrown together into a type of… boot camp. It’s a melting pot—which was also good for me because you are taken out of the art school and thrown together (because everyone has to do the army in Israel) and you get to know your people and you have to learn and manage and get along with different personalities coming from different parts of society, and then you have to make your way, and manipulate, and lie if you have to. I don’t know if the army taught me the greatest things, but the army did teach me how to survive in certain situations, not necessarily dangerous situations, because I didn’t do combat, but how to manage in life out of the protective shell of home. I was then placed in the location where they were taking care of and handling all of the widows and orphans of people who had died or had become handicapped while in the army.

Mirlesse: Did you apply to be placed there?

Carucci: Yes. I asked to be there.

Mirlesse: Do you often go back to visit Israel? Is it a place that you could see yourself photographing at some point?

Carucci: I love Israel. Every couple of months I have a crisis about whether or not I should move back to Israel even though I’ve been living here for sixteen years and I’m an American citizen… but I’m passed the point of moving back. I had many Israeli friends in my twenties, but once I hit thirty and people started to have children… slowly but surely… everyone started to move back—besides one couple—and I mean about forty people in my life left! So there are really fragile stages. As an immigrant it’s hard for you to start a family here, especially when you come from a culture where raising children is such a… huge part… and where there is a community for it. You are instead by yourself and the identity of your children is suddenly different from yours because they are Americans and you are Israeli. Once my friends turned thirty, more or less, they all started to move back. So it’s hard. Especially during more fragile times when I’m sick, or the kids are sick, and it’s difficult, and I’m thinking – should I go back?

Mirlesse: And both your parents and your husband’s parents live in Israel?

Carucci: Yes. What I do is I go for two months every summer. I have a gallery who I work with—Tavi—and I shoot there, and meet with collectors, and I try to teach and give some workshops—so I have a little bit of my life that is still going on there. My kids go to camp there and they speak fluent Hebrew, so there isn’t this major cultural gap between us. There is some connection that is very important to me.

Mirlesse: In terms of taking photographs, do you feel like it is easier for you to make your images here in NY or in Israel or are both places equally productive environments for you?

Carucci: My first few years here were more difficult in that sense. I have to feel like I am home in order to take pictures. But I committed to this place, and that is the difference. I made it my home, and I planted my roots in this ground. And now this is home. I love Israel, but this is home. I’m very creative here, more than I am when I go back now.

Mirlesse: Your most recent work that is currently being exhibited – ‘Born’—is all about your twins, Eden and Emmanuelle. What is different about photographing them versus photographing your parents or yourself and your husband as you have in previous bodies of work?

Carucci: I mean it is an extension of what I was doing before, but it is different first of all because I became a different person and the experience of motherhood is the most intense experience I’ve ever had in my life. I think the edges of my work grew more extreme. Once I became a mother the painful moments and the fearful moments coexisted with the beautiful, loving, magical moments in the same hour or day! That was a new thing for me. On the one hand I would be holding a baby and feeling the bliss and love and connection and the next moment I was looking at my changed body and I was in pain or really exhausted. There were a lot of needs in my kids that I had to provide for. They made me laugh and they made me cry, so it was very intense. The connection is also the strongest. I was with them 24/7 for a while, and they were mine. I almost felt like we were one unit for the first few years.

Mirlesse: So it was almost self-portraiture then?

Carucci: Yes and no. It was all about them and how I am adjusting to be their mother. It was very close and very intense.

Elinor Carucci, Emanuelle Having Her Hair Cut, 2007 color photograph.

Mirlesse: What was the most difficult thing about photographing them?

Carucci: It’s different now because they are seven years old. When they were first born (of course they weren’t aware) it was difficult I think because I had to make good images very quickly. Its not like I could just shoot them, and ask them to move this way and that, and change the light! They needed me so I couldn’t shoot more than just one or two frames at a time. I was looking at my contact sheets and there are many shots where there are one, maybe two, frames taken, and then I had to pick them up or breast-feed them or whatever it was in that moment. It demanded more from me, but it’s also the essence of motherhood—multitasking. I had to take a picture, breastfeed, hold them, they’d be crying, or I’d be worried about them, etc. all at the same time. I think the other thing is that I can’t and I won’t know how they feel about my work, about being photographed, until they are older and… that can be scary to me. For me, I am trying to do a beautiful thing and feel that I am sending them a beautiful message: that they are the most interesting thing in the world to me, with both the good and the bad. I’m embracing it all. I find beauty in all of it. But I’m not really asking them if it’s okay because they are little. So this is another aspect I am dealing with—will they accept me in terms of my photographing them? Will they get strength from this work or will it be something they hate?

Mirlesse: Now that they are seven years old, do you notice any new awareness in them regarding your photography?

Carucci: I don’t notice a change in the way they see my photography, first because I think I’m the parent who takes the least pictures in their school. Other parents take pictures of their kids non-stop, and I am very careful because I don’t wanna hassle them too much. So for them, its not a big deal, its not like we’re doing ‘photo shoots’ where they have to stand for hours and dress up. I see that they are open, and that they are at ease with who they are, but I don’t know if that is the result of my work or who I am. We talk about my taking photos as part of my passion and my profession but in a simple way. Especially my daughter—she was asking me why I photograph moments that are ‘negative’ because there is for example this image where I am cutting her bangs and she seems terrified—and she didn’t like this image. She preferred the happier images. So I explained to her that for me it is a beautiful picture and that it’s about the little dramas I have with her and how everything is really intense with kids. They were very Israeli for a while, and then one day they came back from school, and I pulled out the camera, and they both stood up and posed and said ‘CHEESE!’ which I guess they learned in class, so it was funny, because I had to say ‘No, no, you can’t do the cheese-thing here at home please.’ So I did talk to her about the fact that we don’t have to smile and look perfect for the camera because… we are not! We are not. This is who we are… and this is what is inspiring to me. Even when we fight, even when we cry-- this is life! So that’s why I’m saying I hope that they will gain something from it and that they will not feel it is a burden to them. I hope they will go through their teens and be okay with it. I have a feeling that when they are adults and in their twenties, even eighteen or nineteen, that they will be okay. But going through your teens with images like this on the internet—I hope they will be strong enough to go through it then.

Mirlesse: Do they ever want to take pictures themselves? Do you encourage them to?

Carucci: Yeah, sure. Not always with my camera, because it’s heavy! But sometimes with my camera, especially if it’s on a tripod. I just did this—and it came out great!—this collaboration, because my husband Eran helps me a lot with taking my pictures and we started doing something and eventually my daughter came over and was looking through the lens and pressed the button when I told her. I was with Eden and I wanted to photograph it only with the light of the Blackberry phone and she told me how to move and I asked her if I was in the frame, etc., and it was great! It just happened recently, like a few weeks ago. They really want to do it again, so I think I have to come up with another photo shoot to do.

Mirlesse: You’ve been photographing your immediate family for the last twenty years, and you mentioned earlier when you spoke about your mother that you think the act of taking pictures has brought the two of you closer. I was wondering if you could talk a little more about how that process has developed over two decades?

Carucci: Well I do think I am a result of the way my parents raised me. I don’t think I rebelled against anything with this openness. I think it’s a continuation of who they are—they are open and we are very close. But, I mean, it changes over the years in the way that we each change. I think it does keep us closer, but we are close to begin with, so it’s hard to separate which brings which—it’s kind of like the ‘chicken or the egg’ idea—it’s hard to know which came first.

Mirlesse: What is the most beautiful place you’ve ever been to?

Carucci: The Dead Sea. It’s my favorite place in the world and it’s hard to explain why. It’s like asking why do you love this man and not the other million men you met in your life? [laughing]

Mirlesse: What an analogy, I love it…

Carucci: It’s the same! It’s just something that you feel and it’s hard to explain it. I just feel connected. I love the desert, but then the water in the middle. And I just feel that when I’m there that everything is okay… like I look at my life and all of these things… you know sometimes in New York I get so worried and blow out of proportion things that are really not a matter of life and death and then I go to Israel, and in fact this last time I went straight from the airport to the Dead Sea, direct, with the kids! We were all tired and sleepy there we were in the sea… and I just felt that everything is okay. I guess that’s what some of Zen meditation is about? I just see everything clearly and I’m surrounded by beauty-- a strong resilient kind of beauty.

Mirlesse: Do you think you’ll live in New York for the rest of your life or do you perhaps envision yourself moving to the desert somewhere?

Carucci: No, actually I envision myself here.

Mirlesse: I read in an interview you did a while back that you are very much aware of your own competitiveness. It was interesting to read that because its not perhaps the most common thing to confess about oneself but it felt honest—you said you get jealous when people are doing better than you professionally—I wanted to ask you what your ideas about being successful are?

Carucci: Yes, I do get jealous. And it’s horrible, because I can see how it sometimes gets in the way of my enjoying certain things—but its only in my field, you know, I don’t get jealous if other people if other people make more money or something (well, maybe a little),-- but the real burning jealousy is for people in my field. When I go to see shows, if a show got great reviews and this person is doing really well I go straight to their resumé to see if they are older or younger than me, and if they are younger than me it’s so hard for me to accept it. Its horrible. Then I go to galleries and I look at who is older and who is younger and who is doing better. So… ‘successful’— I think changes from one day to the next. There are days where I feel proud … when success is measured by the amount of love you have in your life (I really do feel that way), and that I have two beautiful children that I love and a family and then other days success is about who sells more prints and who got a museum show and who is in the New York Times Magazine, and this is what success is for me on those days. I don’t have one definition of success. It changes.

Mirlesse: Have you ever felt uncomfortable in front of the camera?

Carucci: No. And I think if I ever felt really uncomfortable—that something is just too much, that I just won’t photograph it. I don’t photograph all the time. I’m not one of those people who takes pictures obsessively every single day. I can put the camera down for three or for weeks and then pick it up again. I do edit the kids work much more than before because they are children so some images that were good images I edited out.

                                             Elinor Carucci, My Belly After Giving Birth and C Section, 2004 color photograph.

Mirlesse: You teach at the School of Visual Arts here in NYC, how did that first happen? Did you suddenly decide one day that you wanted to teach and approach them?

Carucci: They actually approached me. I now teach in the MFA program but I started in the undergraduate program and taught in it for nine years for Stephen Frailey. He had invited me for a meeting and I was very insecure because I was only about twenty-eight or twenty-nine years old and it seemed scary to me, particularly because of the language thing [teaching in English when it isn’t my first language]. He wanted me to teach and there was a class in particular that he had in mind. I told him I wasn’t sure I could do it! But he actually said something that changed me a little bit forever because he said to me ‘Can you be generous?’ and I said ‘Yes, I think I can be generous’, and then he said ‘So you can teach.’ And I got the job. He’d inspired me and believed in me and pushed me in the same 15 seconds with what he said, and I started teaching there. He didn’t remember it a few years later! He was like ‘Really? I said that? That’s so great!’

Mirlesse: Do you have any particular positive memories that stand out from the time you spend with your students in the classroom?

Carucci: There are many but I think of this first one… because I think the first time something happens you tend to remember it, even though it has happened again since then. Teaching is almost like being a mother but in a smaller kind of way. There are many students that I didn’t feel like I helped much despite the fact that I always tried. But I’m remembering though this student of mine who started the year super insecure, not knowing what she wanted to do, and I think I managed to help her and she really opened up like a swan. She really really opened up slowly but surely. One day she just came to class and had great images on the wall and it was such a beautiful experience for me to see her. I was a part of it, not a big part, but a little part. This is what I love about teaching because it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes you try, sometimes you aren’t the right person, some of the work people do I may not relate to as much, but this… worked out beautifully. It’s the reason you teach because you want to help people. You go through a certain amount of the way together, you hold their hand, and then you let them go and they go on with their lives.

Mirlesse: Do you feel like you had that experience as a student? That you had any teachers who really mentored you?

Carucci: I did. I went to school in Israel. It was a really different environment. I only had male faculty and they were very strict in a good way or harsh, cruel and aggressive in a bad way. So I had to find my own way… and I did find two teachers that helped me a lot. Especially one of them who really got close to who I am and how I work and helped me so much in my work.

Mirlesse: You said you had all male faculty when you were studying photography. Do you in general find any major differences in the way women relate to image-making or the camera? I know this is a huge question, but I feel like you might have some interesting thoughts on the subject in general…

Carucci: I’m scared to answer! I’m almost afraid to define the way women relate to photography…

Mirlesse: It’s not meant to be a question of defining the way women relate to photography, point-blank, but you mentioned your experience was a different one from the academic environment you experience now in the sense that there were only men on staff--

Carucci: --I will say something quite cliché and that is that women tend to photograph their environments-- that they are interested in their homes, their families, the issues that are closer to them. So there is a feminine way of photographing, but again, not all women photograph like that of course. I see how it has sometimes been looked down upon as opposed to men who are going into the big world and shooting about social matters and big important issues as opposed to a woman photographing her mother. But I don’t think one is more important than the other. So I can say women sometimes tend to photograph something that is more intimate to them. For thousands of years our existence was about raising children, taking care of our parents, etc., so it can’t change overnight with all the feminism in the world. There is a natural ability to empathize, to relate, to create intimacy quicker, and we use it in our photography. It’s a good thing because this is one of our strengths and abilities, so I don’t think we should consider it ‘feminine’ and therefore try not to do it. Sometimes I feel like in this environment these days with all the conceptual photography and installations that I have to fight for my students, especially the ones who are female and photographing issues like their families and things that are in their personal lives because again sometimes it’s been looked down upon. It’s horrible, because they can do a bad job and make horrible work, but they could make brilliant work, so how can we say to begin with that this work isn’t important when it talks about the essence of our lives? It’s something that I’m still struggling with. I guess it’s the trend right now.

Mirlesse: Do you have any advice that you would give to a young artist just starting their career?

Carucci: I think it’s related to what we just spoke about. Don’t follow the trends because they will come and they will go. If you happen to be interested in conceptual art, great, but don’t try to catch the trends. Be yourself, in both the work and in how you go about promoting and building your career. I think the most important thing is to be active, but you can be proactive in your own ways, you don’t have to be anything else other than the most active and dedicated side of who you really are. I know it sounds like another cliché but just be you.

                                                                        Elinor Carucci, Induced, 2004 color photograph.

Mirlesse: Can you imagine having done anything else now that you are well into photography?

Carucci: I love what I do, but I sometimes feel that the aspect of what I love in what I do is the connection to people… and that’s both in photographing commercially and in my own work… that people look at my work and it helps them somehow. So I sometimes think that I’d like to be in the professions that are helping people whether it’s a doctor or social worker or psychologist—to really even help people more—because sometimes I feel like, yes, I’m helping somehow or I’m teaching, but it’s not enough—so I think if I were doing anything else it would be a profession of taking care of people. Whatever your profession is you have to get up in the morning and think about, despite all the hassle and the mess and the bureaucracy, do I really connect to the essence of what I do?

Mirlesse: Last question: Do you have a favorite book or writer?

Carucci: Yes. I like Jhumpa Lahiri very much. Even though she talks about immigration with an Indian background I very much relate to the subtleties of being an immigrant and coming from one culture and living in another place. I don’t think there is any other writer that I relate to more. I feel like when I read her books… that it’s almost like I have to breathe because it goes straight into the painful parts of my heart. I think she is a genius.

Mirlesse: Alright, real last question now: you’ve been here for sixteen years and see yourself here even as an old woman--what is one thing you love about New York City?

Carucci: I love the way New York welcomed me. I wasn’t necessarily appreciated in Israel back then though I am now. And it’s not only about me, because I know it sounds very self-centered. But I think that if someone can come from a different country, having never went to school here, with a box of prints and within a few years win the Guggenheim award and the Infinity and have solo shows—I mean it’s just so inspiring to know that you are in a place that you can know nobody, and not be American, and not have gone to the right schools or have the right connections, and get a chance to have your dreams come true.

Mirlesse: That is refreshing to hear. So many people would be so cynical about what you just said—

Carucci: I know! It happened though. I worked hard. I cried. I was frustrated. I came here really without much at all.

Mirlesse: And you were bellydancing for years right? That was your first book?

Carucci: It was my second book. I bellydanced for years. It was my main income for the first seven or eight years of my life here. So it wasn’t easy… it was hard... but it was possible.

                                                                   Sabine Mirlesse, Portrait of Elinor, 2011 color photograph.

Thank you, Elinor, for your time.

Sabine Mirlesse

Sabine Mirlesse is a photographer and visual artist currently living and working in Paris. She is a recent graduate of the MFA Photography and Related Media program at Parsons the New School for Design in New York City and has written for The Paris Review and BOMB Magazine in addition to the NY edition of Whitehot. Contact her at info@sabinemirlesse.com or at her website


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