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Midlife by photographer Elinor Carucci is an autobiographical body of work that spans eight years. Carucci’s thoughtful, self-reflective, yet generous vision, translates a deeply personal and painful experience into a series of images that resonate with larger themes of feminism, fertility, and motherhood, as well as what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a woman artist. In a candid interview, she shares her thoughts on the photographic gaze, the transformative and deeply difficult experience of having a hysterectomy, and the nuanced beauty of her marriage, one grounded in and sustained by photography.
Kiss trace, 2015
DUGGAL ART SCENE: In many of the images in Midlife, the gaze of the subject, yourself and others, is obscured from the viewer. This compositional choice helps to cultivate a sense of interiority that creates a tension with the physicality of the body within your photos. However, there are some photos where you or your mother offer a direct gaze that speaks of things beyond the body or an inner life. Can you tell us a bit about these choices?
ELINOR: Quite often, they're obviously intuitive in the moment. Many times, I feel that there's two parts of the artist, the one that is thinking critically, the one that is researching, the one that is going into theories, looking at other work and thinking about what I want to say.
But then, there is also the other artist. Who knows who is the better one or the real one? The other one is the one creating and diving into the moment, all exposed with emotions and feelings and a sense of urgency about what I want to say, while also following the moment and what is happening. It’s a time where many prior decisions will fly out the window, it’s a moment to let go of everything I've planned and thought about. And in between those two, all those decisions are being made. So sometimes it's not a conscious decision, but more of an unconscious conscious decision of the gaze as a result of years and decades of thinking, feeling and investigating.
As a result, there are the two kinds of images you're referring to that are sometimes saying different things. There is a time to let the viewer kind of witness a moment and there is a time to almost perform in front of the viewer with a straight gaze that is expressing: I want to say something here, I want you to look at me, I want to look in your eyes and say something, even if this something is ambiguous, even if when I'm dying my hair and I'm looking at the viewer I am conflicted about this little thing of dying or not dying my hair when my hair starts to turn gray—what it represents. And, I'm almost looking at and asking for answers from the viewer. Sometimes it's more confrontational, like when my mom is in the car, and she's actually looking at me. There are different kinds of direct gazes and then there is the obscured gaze.
My mother wants me to forgive my daughter, 2016
DUGGAL ART SCENE: You often comment on the capacity to be generous as central to your practice as a photography educator. Your photographic practice could also be described as generous, in the sense that it is intensely autobiographical. In your view, what does it mean for a woman to be a witness to her own life – or in this case, to one’s midlife – and to share it publicly?
ELINOR: I feel the generosity has to be there when you're an educator. First and foremost, it's about giving. It's about making sure you're never damaging and always trying to guide and help and nurture, even while honestly criticizing the one you're trying to educate. In my photographic practice, it's much more complex. I'm not always thinking about the wellbeing of my viewers. Sometimes I want to shock them, or make them think, or show them something that might be disturbing or might be complex to look at.
So, you can see it as generosity. It can also be burdening. It can also be disturbing. It can also be saddening. I definitely know that for me to take the picture of my own uterus was not a generous moment. It was a moment of confronting a reality that was painful for me and I know it had the same effect on other women, middle-aged women, not middle-aged women, and especially women who've had a hysterectomy. Sharing it in that sense could be a generous element, but there are also other elements. It is not always easy to look at and for some people it might not be a positive experience. So, I think it's more complex. But as an educator I feel that the generosity is more straightforward.
DUGGAL ART SCENE: Fertility is one theme that is explored in Midlife. Its relationship to your experience of womanhood and identity seems to be central. Where do you stand now that the project is complete in regard to your personhood or identity?
ELINOR: In regard to fertility, my work is not black or white, it’s about the grays and all the shades in between. As a feminist, I want to say fertility has nothing to do with who I am as a person, as a woman. But unfortunately, I can’t subscribe to that completely. I can rebel against, I can be defiant, but I can't separate my fertility–my ability to have kids and be a mother–from who I am and how I define myself. And this is still something that is difficult for me.
There is now a bittersweet feeling when I see a pregnant woman. It’s such a beautiful sight and so inspiring how we can create human beings in our bodies. And, it is also something to celebrate as an artist, something that many times, I guess our society, and definitely the art world, looks down at. Many people looking at my work on motherhood, womanhood and fertility can look down at it as not as important, as women's art. When we're actually looking at one of the most important elements, if not the most important element in our lives, our core, our origin, how we came to the world, who raised us. It always really upsets me when it's looked down on. I see it as misogyny, sexism and the patriarchal culture that we live in.
Fertility and motherhood is a big element in my life. And the fact that I'm not fertile anymore is painful, and it did reshape me in a way for good and for bad. It was something I had to deal with, and grow maybe as a result, and be fertile in other ways. Many times, you can see women’s careers blossoming when they're done with childbearing and they're not fertile anymore. So again, it's complex. It was definitely something that was difficult for me. Not only not being fertile, but also the loss of my uterus that caused a big crisis in the way that I saw myself and in things that were trivial that I doubted, even about just being a woman.
Eran and I, 2013
DUGGAL ART SCENE: Lastly, in the Afterword in Midlife, you write about the positive evolution of your marriage. In contemplating ideas of the transformation of romance, you posit the question, “Why can’t this teamwork and partnership—those intense collaborations and discoveries of parenting, the deep commitments of time and attention—be appreciated on their own?” How has your process as a photographer been an asset to your marriage?
ELINOR: This is something that is hard for me to know, because my marriage is based on photography. I know it sounds extreme. But, the strongest bond between me and Eran, my husband, is photography. This is how we met, through photography, pursuing our degrees in photography school. Eran comes from a family of photographers. His grandparents were pioneering photographers in Jerusalem. They established a photography studio and photography store and he worked for them. So, over the years, photography became another language for us.
In difficult times, it was sometimes the only language that we spoke. For example, collaborating on making pictures in days that we hardly spoke to one another. Making the pictures, looking at the pictures and seeing in them sometimes things that we wouldn't otherwise talk about or even see. Sometimes the pictures showed us certain elements that we were not acknowledging consciously. So, it is an asset to my marriage, the awareness it brings, the collaboration, the communication and the love. We both love photography. Also, just the everyday actions like going to photography shows, sharing photo blogs and looking at photo books. Periods in our lives are not complete unless they are photographed and looked at by us. So yes, this is our biggest bond. Our love and photography are inseparable.
HEADER IMAGE: Lipstick and facial hair, 2014
Elinor Carucci: Midlife is on view at Edwynn Houk Gallery through October 22, 2020. The exhibition will be presented as the gallery’s first online viewing room. More info here: www.houkgallery.com/exhibitions/elinor-carucci-midlife