Hair dye. 2016
There is a conflict between my sense of liberation – feminist me, strong and confident- and the roles and stereotypes that women are still subject to.
Interview by Elizabeth Smith
Israeli American photographer Elinor Carucci has carved out a very successful fine art, commercial, and academic career in New York City. Carucci’s latest book Midlife is both striking and searingly personal. It is an exquisitely edited intimate portrait of the photographer and her family.
Elinor and I first met in 1998 at Fotofest in Houston, and since then her work has gone from strength to strength and she’s been the recipient of three important awards: ICP Infinity Award for Young Photographers (2001); a Guggenheim Fellowship (2002); and a NYFA in 2010.
Photography Awards & teaching photography in New York
How have these awards influenced your work and assisted in the development of your practice?
I had been in New York for six years having emigrated from Israel. People had told me to start applying for these awards because ‘they take years’. When I got the ICP Infinity Award I just couldn’t believe it. It meant a lot to me because when I was 17 and visiting NYC, I remember being at the ICP bookstore and at that moment I decided I wanted to be a photographer.
When I moved here in 1995, I had no connection to anyone. I was trying to get an O-1 visa and in order to get it one thing I needed was a letter from a museum. I got everything else needed but my lawyer told me that I still needed a letter from a museum confirming ‘exceptional talent’. My gallery took me to the Director of the ICP Willis Hartshorn, who said, ‘I will meet this young lady and if her work is good, we will give her the letter’. And I got the letter so ICP has always held a special place for me.
Since you’ve been in New York, you’ve also taught photography at various well know places, how did that come about?
I have been teaching since 1999. It started by meeting with Stephen Frailey from the School of Visual Arts who was then the Chair of the Photography Department. I was very nervous about teaching because of my English and I was not living off of my photography at that time; I was belly dancing for a living.
When I met with Stephen and explained this, he was so amazing. I said I don’t know if I can teach well enough. And he said, let me ask you this. Do you think you can be generous Elinor? And I said Yeah, I think I can be generous. And he said, if you can be generous, then you can teach. You have the job. It was so inspiring. And I couldn’t can’t say no to this, so I started teaching for him. And then to the ICP, and now I teach at the MFA of School of Visual Arts, as well as on the MFA at Lesley University.
Eran and I, 2013
Kiss trace, 2015
Personal Work Journal features photography & photobooks from around the world.
Lipstick and facial hair, 2014
How have you balanced teaching with your commercial assignments in the past twelve months?
I’m actually teaching more now because my commercial assignments went down during the pandemic. They’re picking up now.
During the pandemic there was a lot of work for photojournalists. In fact, I think of these brave people as almost like war photographers. You know the photographers that went into the hospitals, at the height of the covid crisis and photographed care homes and the very sick and dying. And yeah, those amazing photographers were still working. Here in New York, it really was a kind of war state of mind. But my commercial work is very different and I was not getting commercial assignments as before but fortunately for me, the teaching actually increased.
There are a lot of zoom opportunities now and the possibility to give workshops globally. I do many of those now, and I have people from Israel, from Europe, from China, Mexico and beyond. My photographic print sales through Edwynn Houk have been strong too this past year which is wonderful.
Besides teaching you have consistently exhibited in both solo and group shows.
Yes, right now I am in a great group show at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago entitled Reproductive: Health, Fertility, Agency which is a long name, but it’s a fantastic show.
I am exhibiting with seven very talented women so there are eight of us and we all have our own individual room which is substantial. I am showing an entire room of my work not just one or two images which is typically how group exhibitions work. Each artist has a room. I’m fortunate in that I have had great support from my galleries.
I have worked for many years with Edwynn Houk in New York. They recently had an exhibition on my photographs of the Collars of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and they are now showing this same body of work this summer as part of Expo Chicago. James Hyman, who is art dealer and gallerist in London, has also been particularly encouraging and supportive over the years.
Mom is being crazy, 2017
My mother wants me to forgive my daughter, 2016
Three generations, 2016
Two pubic hair (one brown, one grey), 2014
Publishing photography books
Elinor’s most recent book ‘Midlife’ is an extraordinary work that, just like her other books, is beautifully printed. It manages to be be searingly personal and yet the experiences she describes visually are profoundly universal.
Was this a challenging project to work on?
This was the hardest body of work for me and it took me a while to try to find a publisher. And then eventually, Alan Rapp who published my first book Closer when he was with Chronicle saw me and said ‘I haven’t seen anything like this’. He had become the Editorial Director at Monacelli and although they were mainly doing architecture he said yes. Edwynn Houk Gallery then scheduled a show to come out with the book, but the show was cancelled because of the pandemic. But they did an online exhibition in September 2020 which was great. It was difficult though as the book came out at the end of 2019; it got a lot of great press including in the New Yorker, the Guardian and Wired Magazine and then the pandemic hit, and it kind of stopped.
Midlife is dedicated to your Mom, and I found that particularly poignant because it’s often Moms who kick back on their daugther’s aging, for instance they don’t want us to go grey.
Yes, mine too. My mom said I really think you’re too young to do that. I just thought that was so funny and interesting, and I know it comes from love and care. It’s not like she wants to make you feel bad, more like she was even worried.
And to be honest part of what she was worried about happened. In some ways it was the end and I was sharing it with her. She was like, well, you decided to go grey and it’s almost as if you like looking ugly. She was very straightforward. And I was like, Mom, if we don’t start making a change, change will never happen. If women want to dye their hair, that’s great but if they don’t, they shouldn’t be punished for it, especially in the job market. But she was worried and she wants me to do good. And she wants me to get job opportunities and she feels that it is harder, and it is, when we get older. This is how she loves me.
I say in the book that there is a conflict between my sense of liberation – feminist me, strong and confident- and the roles and stereotypes that women are still subject to.
Red #1, 2014