Earlier this week an exhibition of photographs by American-Israeli photographer Elinor Carucci, entitled Intimacy, opened at the James Hyman Gallery in London. Many of the moments that she records show scenes that others would probably prefer to remain private; rituals of personal hygiene, moments of marital crisis, portraits of her and her family naked.
Carucci was born in Jerusalem in 1971 but has lived in New York since the mid-1990s. She started taking photographs of her family while still in her teens. “I was very young when I started,” she explains. “I was just 15 when I picked up my father’s camera for the first time. He was an amateur photographer. I was just at home doing nothing and my mum woke up from an afternoon nap and I took her picture. I started taking photos without knowing much about photography.’
So why does she photograph her family so much? “I don’t really have an answer,’ she admits. “It fills a need that doesn’t go away. I do it because I want to and need to. It helps me know who I am. All of us, whether we are professional photographers or not, use photography to keep moments we don’t want to lose.” She stresses that she could not take these kinds of photographs of other people. “My way of photography is so personal. I can’t go that way with others.”
It was this emphasis on the family that interested gallery owner James Hyman. He says: “I was attracted by the way Elinor presents her own family, the different generations, and intimate events big and small. What is especially significant is the way in which she emphasises her own place; her position as daughter, wife, mother. “It is a surprise to me how rare it is to have an artist respond to their family. I don’t have a thesis on this but the closeness of family, whether positive or negative, may have a particular Jewish resonance.”
Many of the photographs show Carucci with other members of her family either naked or just dressed in underwear. Some viewers might find these photographs slightly disturbing, but for Carucci, nudity is natural: “Being naked around my mother, my grandmother and aunts seemed so normal. It was only when I came to America that I met people who had never seen their mothers naked.” The case is slightly different with regard to her father. “Being nude around my father was a bit less common but it happened. However, when I bring a camera into a room to photograph the two of us I know I am pushing boundaries.”
Some of her photographs are extremely personal. She photographs her menstrual blood, the plucking of a hair from her nipple, the scars from her Caesarian. One wonders if for Carucci there are any taboos, any areas that she will not explore. “Flaws in my body, going through childbearing, having a C-section. These things shouldn’t be taboo.” However, Carucci reveals that although she photographed her grandmother while she was dying, she has not yet exhibited these works. “I will eventually show them. But at the moment it is so painful to look at the work. I just have to wait a few more years.”
Many of Carucci’s works show the attempts women make to change their appearance, from bleaching, plucking and waxing body hair to the marks made by restrictive underwear, to the rituals of make up. Is she making a feminist point? “It is very complex,” she acknowledges. “I don’t take the photos and then go out without make-up, leaving all my body and facial hair. I do pluck, I do put on make-up. I try to be beautiful according to what beautiful is in the 21st century. I am showing the struggle and complexities of being a woman.’
Although Carucci has lived in New York for many years, she still feels very close to Israel and spends at least two months a year there. “Every couple of years, I have this crisis about whether I should go back or not.”
Although she is interested in exploring her homeland she wants to steer clear of overtly political issues. “I could find a niche that is personal if it interests me and Israel does interest me.” Some ideas for possible projects include documenting Arabs and Israelis who are in relationships or exploring the lives of other Israelis who live abroad.
Five years ago, Carucci gave birth to twins. How has motherhood changed her work? “I feel that the early days were the most extreme months in my life. Joy and love coexisted with pain and anger and exhaustion. The experience pushed my work to emotional extremes.” Carucci’s most recent body of work focuses on her children. “I could not control my work. I could not direct them in any way. There was no collaboration because they were so little.” These photos are very different from most family snapshots. She focuses in on snotty noses and tearful eyes, views that all parents of young children will recognise even if they do not choose to record those moments themselves.
Charlotte Cotton, Creative Director at the National Media Museum in Bradford and author of The Photograph as Contemporary Art, is an admirer of her work. “Elinor is working within a tradition of autobiographical photography, a strain that took off in the 1990s. She is astute in being able to present psychological and harsh realities of everyday situations. She gets the balance absolutely right.”