Spanning the first decade of her twin children’s lives, Elinor Carucci’s latest monograph, Mother, continues the photographer’s tradition of crafting deeply intimate, honest scenes of personal and family life. Snapshots of sibling fights, subway-train meltdowns, and excursions to McDonald’s alternate with more painterly, classically staged portraits of the two children and Carucci’s own pregnant figure. The body of work exposes the profound changes that child-rearing brought to the photographer’s own life, body, and sense of self, but it serves equally as a celebration of motherhood’s ubiquity, beauty, and spiritual power. With an interview by Juliana Halpert.
Juliana Halpert: Mother features photographs taken over the course of nearly a decade. At what point in this period did ideas for a cohesive project—and book—begin to take shape?
Elinor Carucci: I started shooting when I was pregnant, and I think the crucial moment was after I had the kids. I didn’t know what would happen, in general—in every aspect of my life. So once I realized that I was still making pictures, I felt, after a year, this is something that I can continue to do. It’s possible—I can still think and create, and maybe even more. So then I just committed to it, but I didn’t have a plan for a project.
Five years ago, [publisher] Prestel contacted me, and they saw the work and thought it could be a great book. I felt it still wasn’t ready. But that started the first stage, where [Prestel photography editor] Curt Holtz and I were in touch, and I would send him JPEGs. At some point, I felt that it was ready—it had been almost 10 years.
You have to get out of yourself to create interesting images, and I think being a parent brings that to the extreme. It made me a better photographer, being a mother.
JH: How did the birth of your children influence your creative process?
EC: At the very beginning, it was overwhelming. But thinking creatively was a way to reflect on my life, to pause and think, to help me understand what was going on. I don’t think at any point I stopped. If anything, I became more creative and reflective. I feel that photography is different from other art forms, especially if you’re photographing the world. You have to get out of yourself to create interesting images, and I think being a parent brings that to the extreme. It made me a better photographer, being a mother.
JH: When Mother was released, did you encounter any criticism for having pursued a personal, creative project in the early stages of motherhood?
EC: People are often asking questions; some I have answers for and am totally 100 percent certain about what I am saying. For some, I don’t, and time will tell. I can understand some of the questions, but some make me feel that I really see motherhood and personal relationships differently than other people, which is why I made this work.
In some ways, part of why I made Mother was to demonstrate my belief that in order to raise children and family, we have to be open with another, and I believe that being physically warm and intimate with children is a necessity for them. I think that there’s a difference between being “sexual” with children, which is something that can damage them, and embracing them and loving them and giving them some of your sensuality, which one day might become part of them. But we should let there be a good physical foundation for them that will be connected with love and warmth. That’s how I was raised, and that’s how I am raising my children. I think it’s a beautiful thing.
EC: People are concerned about exposure of parts of our lives, and this is something that my children maybe want and will approve of in the future. I don’t have a firm answer. I think I am giving a good message to my children with this work; of openness, of not keeping a facade, of embracing our flaws and weaknesses. Regardless, it’s who I am, and it’s what I do, and my children—like any children and like any parents—have to assert and extend, but they have to accept who their parents are.
JH: Several writers and critics have described your portrayals of your children in Mother as “erotic.” How do you feel about the usage of that particular word in reference to these images, and how it reflects on your relationship with your children?
EC: Freud did a much better job at that than I can! [laughs] But our relationship with our parents, both of them, have a lot to do with who we are as adults and [with] our relationships and our sexuality. So I think raising children is a sensual, even erotic, experience. But it’s not sexual. I think we should celebrate that, and it’s part of the warmth and love, as I said, that they should receive.
JH: You received your BFA from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, where you were raised. Did you begin focusing your work on familial relationships during that time or afterward?
EC: Well, let me go back a bit: When I was around 15 or 16, I picked up my dad’s camera and wandered around. He had some kind of Canon with a fixed lens. He was shooting black and white. I took some pictures of my mother, of myself, my brother, and just fell in love with photography. Then I did the Israeli army. When I came to Bezalel, I had this great portfolio, but I didn’t feel like these [photographs of my family] were legitimate artworks, so I started doing other things for a while. Some of the things I did were horrible, artsy art-school images. Other people weren’t focusing on their family at all, so I felt like I had to do something more important and conceptual.
But then two of my professors helped me, and told me that I was trying to talk about relationships and intimacy and jealousy and love and all the emotion that exists within a family. They remembered my portfolio and told me it was OK to go back to photographing my family, that this could be my artwork.
JH: When did you begin portraying yourself, and in the nude? At what moments are you most compelled to take self-portraits?
EC: Once I started photographing my mother, I looked at the pictures of her and thought, I wonder how she and I look together? because I always thought she was so beautiful and glamorous and that I was in her shadow. So I put the camera on a self-timer and took a self-portrait—it just started, and I continued to do it. A professor at Bezalel encouraged me to keep going and showing more.
JH: How does photographing yourself on a frequent basis influence your self-image and self-perception—particularly during pregnancy, when your body is undergoing so many changes?
EC: I think it just makes me see more. It makes me see more about my life and myself and my body: my own flaws, getting older, all my stretch marks, my C-section scar—it’s all there. The power of photography is that you can look at this split second and take your time to look at and understand it. I influence my photography with who I am, and it influences me back with what I discover while looking at it.
JH: The majority of your earlier work has the feel of classical portraiture—it’s very composed, even painterly. It’s a signature and recognizable style that you’ve developed, and it’s still very present in Mother, but there are also many photographs that appear much more spontaneous and unplanned. I’ve also never seen you photograph outside, until now. How did this begin to happen, and was this a conscious departure from your former style?
EC: It was definitely a surprise to me, because even when I did assignments for magazines, it was always indoors. The second half of Mother has a lot of pictures outdoors. I remember taking them and noticing that they were growing and growing; again, it was an intuitive thing. But I think it came out of two changes. One is that having two children here in America—having two American kids, sending them to public school here, being part of the community—really made me feel like…. I know it’s been a long time since I moved here in 1995, but only in the last few years I’ve felt that this is completely and entirely home. And so, outside became home—it’s a very different feeling. Maybe it is an inner, unconscious decision, but it just made the streets of New York and my neighborhood finally feel like home.
And another thing with children is that they don’t put on a facade as soon as you leave home, like we [adults] do. So they cry when we’re outside, they yell at me, or we fight, so those everyday family dramas that I’m after, and the intimacy that I’m after, happen outside as well. Maybe that was also a part of it.
JH: I think one particular photo, “Why can’t you be nice to your brother?” (2012) embodies one of these intense, intimate family moments, within this new context of the city landscape. Would you explain how this was created?
EC: Many times I have an idea about what I want to photograph, and this time I knew we were going to my friend’s house—a photographer as well—and I said, let’s take the camera, let’s leave 20 minutes earlier and take some pictures of what happens to us. So I don’t know if they’re going to be happy pictures or not. So I put the camera on a self-timer, and we ended up in a fight. [What I capture is] often just what ends up happening.
The sessions are not very long; this was maybe three minutes. We were arguing about something—I think Emmanuelle pushed Eden, and I told my husband, just press [the shutter]. We had something else in mind, but just press it. It has been this way in many other situations, where I had my plans, the camera—I had my self-timer, the lights, aperture, everything ready—and I wanted to shoot one thing, but something else happened. Sometimes I don’t even know or plan, just shoot today at 5, and see what happens.
We were going to my friend’s house and I said, let’s take the camera, let’s leave 20 minutes earlier and take some pictures of what happens to us. So I don’t know if they’re going to be happy pictures or not.
JH: When did your children first become aware that they were part of an artistic project for you? How did they react when they first saw photographs of themselves?
EC: My son took it in a nonchalant way. First of all, he’s more similar to me in his personality: not so concerned about being proper. He didn’t give it much thought; also, he’s a boy. My daughter, when I first showed her the work, we did get into conversations. She asked me, why don’t you take pretty pictures? So we had to get into the conversation of what, for me, is worth a picture and what, for me, is pretty or inspirational. For me, it was a good conversation, because I feared the moment of her asking about my work. I told her that, to me, everything about her and her brother was beautiful and inspiring. We still talk about the pictures.
JH: Your husband appears in only a few images in Mother. We’ve been talking about how your work and process come from a deeply intuitive and personal level, but was there any intention behind his attenuated presence? Do you anticipate re-inserting him into your future work?
EC: As you said, it was intuitive—it wasn’t a decision. But it does represent something else about the book, which is very universal: the temporary loss of your wife when she becomes a mother. Maybe with twins it was even more extreme. So when I became a mother, I felt for a good few years that I was totally and entirely one with my children. A lot of aspects of who I am as a woman went to them. Maybe he was left out of it a little bit, but I felt that my body and my heart and my emotions and my sexuality, everything just went to them. I felt very united with them.
I remember worrying about it, but I also recall this one mother told me, enjoy this stage. Don’t worry, they will put the limit on closeness—they will push you away. And you will go back to him.
JH: Do you enjoy soliciting outside perspectives on such an intimate body of work? How did reactions influence the editing process and other creative decisions?
EC: Within Prestel, they got the work; they wanted to do the book. There are other people that were involved in what I was doing that weren’t as supportive. It’s really hard to know when to take criticism into account and when to ignore it. Sometimes some people don’t react so well to the images I shot outside, which is very discouraging when you’re starting a different direction in your work and receive negative feedback. Your first instinct is to just stop it and go back to what you were doing before.
I think it was good that I had my husband. The images—I just have the need to continue to take them. There is a process I have to go through, and I have to take some bad or mediocre images to get where I want to be.
“The experience of motherhood was so intense and so extreme that my work became more intense.”
JH: Because of their autobiographical nature, your four books seem to have carved out a clear, linear trajectory of important stages in your life. Do you try to create a sense of cohesion among your projects
EC: I can see the connection [of Mother] to Closer, but I think that I am a different person now. I am older, I became a mother, I am much more opinionated and stronger in the views of what I want to say. And also, the experience of motherhood was so intense and so extreme that my work became more intense. I know what I’m saying with these images and with this body of work. Maybe not while I’m shooting every single image I know what I’m saying, but overall I have stronger opinions about what it is to be a parent, to the complexity of it; not only the Madonna-child pretty images of mother and baby, but the more layered experience of being a parent. Being a mother, especially, but I think also it has to do a lot with being a father as well.
Elinor Carucci is a photographer living in New York City. She received her BFA from Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem and currently teaches photography at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. In addition to Mother, she has published two other monographs of her work: Closer (2002) and Diary of a Dancer (2005). Her work has been published in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and New York magazine, among other publications, and has been collected by the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Houston Museum of Art. She was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002 and became the New York Foundation of the Arts fellow in photography in 2010.
Juliana Halpert is a writer and photographer living in Brooklyn. In addition to Daylight, she has contributed to Artforum.