Interview: Elinor Carucci

Interviewed by phone in New York City on May 4th, 2011

New York City-based Elinor Carucci (b 1971) is an Israeli-American photographer. She won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002 and the NYFA Award in 2010. She was chosen by Photo District News as one of its "30 Under 30" in 2000 and won the International Center of Photography’s "Infinity Award" for Best Young Photographer in 2001.

She is currently working on a body of work about her children. Previous bodies of work include Closer which was published as a monograph in 2002 by Chronicle Books and republished in 2009 with a forward from Susan Kismaric. A second book entitled Diary of a Dancer was published by SteidlMack in 2005. Her work is included in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Jewish Museum (New York), the International Center of Photography, The Brooklyn Museum of Arts, The Houston Museum of Fine Arts, The Museum of Israeli Art in Ramat Gan, Israel, the Herzlia Museum of Contemporary Art and The Haifa Museum of Art.

In this interview, we have tried to add to the already extensive number of interviews with Carucci that exist online. Among the best of the many interviews are those with Rachel Been on Slideluck Potshow, the community interview with Matt Johnston on A Photo Student that features a selection of student questions and also two video interviews, one a film by Christian Klinger on amadelio and a second produced by artis in 2009. A Google search will turn up another dozen.

After reading through those interviews, we decided to focus this interview on areas of her life and work less covered previously: the role of Israeli culture in her work, questions about the images themselves that complement questions in previous interviews and also on her role as an educator.


fototazo: Elinor, people often talk about your work in terms of intimacy, family and also your own life experience, but as I was looking through your images, it also seems to me your work is just as much about your culture. How much do you think your work is a reflection and commentary of being Israeli in terms of family dynamics, comfort with the body, parenting...

Elinor Carucci: Yes, when I started to take pictures, I didn't think about it at all, because I took for granted who I am, and who my family was, but especially after I moved to America, I realized that a lot of this is cultural. A lot of it is how, as you were just saying, how much more easier we are with nudity, and how intimacy is being expressed, especially among women in the Middle East. I realized that even though I wasn't intending to talk about Israeli culture, or Middle Eastern culture, my work ended up reflecting this culture because it's who I am and where I'm from.

f: Do you think you would be making the same images, or similar images, if you were still living in Israel full-time?

EC: Nope, no. I mean my work reflects my reality and today I have two children that were born and raised in America, they're Americans, and I'm photographing much more outside, so the New York streets [are] in my images, and also I'm a little different. So my life is different, and if my life is different, then my work is different.

f: Have you found a difference in how you're thought of as a photographer in Israel and in the US? And in the critical response you've received between the two countries?

EC: I think I have been better received in America. And I, even though I try to understand why it happened, I haven't figured it out...yet. Sixteen years here and I haven't figured it out! In America and in Europe my work gets a lot of attention, I have a lot of shows and good reviews, and in Israel it's been a struggle, I don’t know why.

f: Maybe it relates to the previous question about culture - that you have something to share in the U.S. and Europe that people are less familiar with that adds a charge to the work. Maybe in Israel, the world and life you show is something more common and the work is related to differently.

EC: I don't know. I mean I know that in Israel it's a smaller market, and the market is more conceptual. I definitely think some of it is trying to be seen as very sophisticated, and because we're a small country, maybe the art world wants to show that it's as good as America and Europe, and it's trying hard to be very conceptual, very sophisticated, and ends up being much colder.

It's coming from insecurity actually, so you see a lot of like, weird conceptual installations, and people think they're really cutting edge, and they will not accept work that has simplicity, and my work has...I don't know if it's simple, but it's straightforward. So it's seen less as like "fine art." But I'm trying not to give it a lot of thought, because it makes me angry.


f: I would like to ask some questions about your work as well, starting with beauty, the body, and taking images. How important do you think your body and your beauty is to making images? Do you think you would be able to make, or be interested in making, the same images and statements with your work if you weren't so blessed?

EC: A. Thank you and B: My recent work, which you've just seen very little of on my website because I haven't showed it yet, I am not showing my body in a beautiful way at all - after pregnancy and the stretch marks and the sagging breasts, and all kinds of not really beautiful things. I think Closer was me in my twenties with a more beautiful body, but it's changing and my body's changing and I'm aging.

I mean, in my work, I'm trying to talk about many different things, and not all of it has to be beautiful, but, I have...and I don't think I'm beautiful at all, so...this question is funny to me! But I think the work is about the body and intimacy and the weaknesses and the flaws of the body, but I don’t know, I am who I am and the family that I am, so...

f: If you start with beauty, and then you show stretch marks and you show the passage of time, than maybe starting with beauty allows for tension in the images, that you see the change affecting beauty and that makes the images successful. Maybe if you started with a different body, showing damage wouldn't have the same tension and the same impact, the same success, perhaps, as an image.

EC: I don’t know. I'm trying to photograph my own experiences, but I think a lot of what I'm photographing is very universal and for every woman it's a painful process - with all the joy of having a baby - to lose the old body that you had. I think it's a painful process. For some it's not so bad and for some it's worse, and it also depends if you have twins, how your body is reacting to childbearing and pregnancy, but I think we all are beautiful when we are 18, and we're 30-something after pregnancy then birth. No matter what kind of body we started with, it's a difficult, painful process.

f: I also want to ask you about the history of your images and if you're strategies for, and ideas about, image-making have changed a lot over time.

EC: The more you learn and are exposed to more imagery and more artists, it's more absorbed in your life...I think I'm much more clear with what I want today with my work than I was twenty years ago, or fifteen years ago.

f: So that clarity has also been a process within your own work and looking at other people's work and living with your own images?

EC: No, I think the clarity comes from age and experience. I would have been more clear in what I think and what I want to say whether or not I'm an artist. Because I'm an artist it ends up in my work. I think when you're 40, and I'm almost 40, you are a different person than when you are 20 and 24. So I think I'm more opinionated today in many ways. I know what I think, I know what want, I know what I want to say.

f: Has becoming clearer in thoughts and ideas with age changed the images formally?

EC: I see the changes as I look at my work in retrospect. I see changes that happen as a result...even light, there's not much in the Manhattan apartments in New York, so I started using a lot of artificial light. I am more indoors here because the winter. I think I came to loosen the work up, it used to be much more controlled, and now I try to give more room for things to just happen. And also, you know, the point of view. I'm a mom, I'm a mother of two, I've immigrated from one country to another, which can be a very painful experience, and a very complicated one. So it's a combination I guess of many different things that I'm not even aware of at the time.

f: I was reading in an interview with you that with time you've accepted staging images more, and become comfortable with the truth and the kind of the reality that that can show. Have you ever felt that if you're going to stage the images, you might look at making medium or large format images? Why have you decided to stay with 35mm?

EC: I know that was written, but it was a little...I guess people misunderstood me, I don't really stage images. I sometimes maybe arrange them more...so also maybe it's my lack of better English.

f: Well, we can correct the record in this interview!

EC: [laughs] I never stage an image completely, but I'll sometimes just slightly interfere with the situation or bring a light, but the images are not staged, they're not staged. And I need to be able to hold a camera and hold the baby in the other hand and so the quickness and the lightness of the 35mm was good for me, even though some of my work was done with a 4x5 camera, and today I'm using the MarkIII which is not really 35, it's heavier.

But to work exclusively with 4x5 I couldn’t do it because many of the images that are happening in the moment while I'm in the moment, I need the immediacy of the 35.

f: You talked in one interview about Mary Ellen Mark being a strong, early photographic influence. I wanted to ask you about what influence film, music, literature or other creative sources have had on your work.

EC: I'm mostly, I guess, aware of photography, but also I think that film directors have influence on me, but it’s hard to connect it directly to my work, but there's people whose work I just love. Doug Lerman, the film director, and Matilde Matilde, and the Israeli director, Ari Feldmen, just people whose work really touched me...and maybe influenced me somehow.

f: And this is a straightforward question: why do you take pictures?

EC: Yes, I don't know. I mean, I don't know why. It's this thing that makes me feel so alive. You know, I can tell you what it makes me feel, but I don't know why photography I guess. It's like asking a woman why you fell in love with this man. It's this very mysterious thing. I love taking pictures, it helps me see my life and see the world around me and it just makes me feel...alive as I said, but I don't really know why photography and not painting or sculpture or...or working as a financial consultant. I don't know. It's just what I love to do.

f: Do you ever have an interest in or kind of a fantasy of being another type of photographer? Do you look at images by certain people and wish you were the photographer that could take those?

EC: I love what I do and I think wishing for doing other things is really fulfilled by shooting a lot on assignment. I shoot for magazines and I've been doing so for the last decade. So I'm [exposed to] many different assignments and different kinds of people. It does fulfill the need to do other things and be inspired by other ideas - and great photo editors push me out of my comfort zone.


f: I would like to ask you about your role as a teacher. How do your roles as a photographer and educator interact and overlap, what do you get from teaching and also what does it make you give up?

EC: I don't sacrifice anything because I'm not a full-time teacher. I think some of the problems of teaching are the fact that it takes so much of someone's time. I just teach once a week right now and I give workshops every once in a while...so it's not like I devote myself to teaching.

I think the downside of that is that I don't have a full-time position, I don't make income I can rely on from teaching because I'm an adjunct professor. The great thing for me...[is] that it forces me to get out of my work and myself and really think about my students, how they think and how they create. For me this is the challenge. Every time I see someone's work, I don't really know at first what needs to be done in order to help them progress. It's a process. In this process I have to realize who they are and how they think and how they create, and then to try to help them that way, and for me this is the biggest challenge.

f: I thought we could ask a few questions about the general advice you give your students while talking about your role as a teacher. Do you have advice received or learned over the course of your career that you would pass along to them?

EC: Someone once advised me to really go with what I think in terms of editing my work, and what kind of work I'm doing and then, he said, it will be easier to embrace your failures. And this is so true because there are a lot of failures along the way, when you choose to be an artist, photographer, creative person. And to me if you know that you are walking your way, what you do reflects who you are, then if you fail, it's easier to deal with it than if you're trying to chase some kind of idea or trend of what kind of work you should be doing. I think it was a good advice. To just - not "just" because it's not an easy thing - to be me and take the decisions that are right for me.

f: Do you have any advice on starting projects?

EC: Yeah, they should do whatever they feel is right to do. I mean, you can always look at the trends. I don't work this way, some people do and that's fine for them, and sometimes, you know, seeing what has been done around you and trying different things is not a bad thing - but I've given advice because it's a very personal thing.

f: What about on the other end of a project, thinking about how to put these images, that come from different times, different places together, do you have any thoughts about sequences and creating a larger body or work, any thoughts to pass on?

EC: No, I feel it really depends on the work, on the context, on where it is going, and if it's a group show, if it's a book, if it's a page or two pages or eight pages for a magazine, if you want your work to be read as a narrative or not, as a conceptual project or not, so it's not something that generally you can I think you can have one advice for.

f: Do you think that a photograph can tell a narrative?

EC: Yeah, I think it can tell a narrative. I don't know if it can reflect reality as it is, but it can tell a narrative, it can be a narrative that is from the photographer's mind, but it can tell a narrative.

f: Do you have any thoughts about the gallery-museum world and strategies for having successful relationships with them?

EC: I think my only advice is to be really flexible and not to be entitled. Galleries are struggling almost the way we do, you know, you have to take it one step at a time. So I think if you're selling a lot, or if you just got a lot of critical attention, then you can ask for more from the gallery, but you can't ask the gallery to be your parent, you have to be realistic in the fact that these are businesses, they need to make a living, they need to pay the bills, you have to be realistic in what you ask from them. So for me to be flexible and realistic, and not be kind of the whining artist that I sometimes was, that I wish I'd learned earlier on.

f: The last question is to ask you if there's anything you would like to add or to see if there's something you've always wished an interviewer would ask you.

EC: No, I've been asked I think everything!

f: I was surprised how many interviews there are with you online. Hopefully the interview will add a little bit to the existing content about you as a teacher, a little bit more about the role of culture in your work and a little information about images themselves to complement what's out there.

Thanks, Elinor, for your time!

Edited for length, sequence, and clarity.