Elinor Carucci is an accomplished photographer. To put it mildly. Her photographs are in the collections at MOMA, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Houston Museum of Fine Art, among others. She is the new master photographer at Ilford. She has held visiting teaching positions at Princeton, Harvard, and the International Center for Photography, and is currently a faculty member at the School of Visual Arts. She has published three books. Recently, on assignment for The New York Times Magazine, she photographed young adults who left their Ultra Orthodox communities. Her photographs of Evan, a transgender man who gave birth to a baby boy, which appeared in Time, won multiple awards. She is also a former professional belly dancer.
But you would literally never know any of this if you just happened upon her. With her long, black hair, she more looks like an Israeli-bohemian-mama-Venus-goddess than a photography powerhouse. She is also nicer and more gentle than probably anyone else in New York City—let alone anyone in the art world, let alone anyone in the art world in New York City—who has achieved this level of success.
As a reward for all this, I took her to the Israeli bakery Breads off Union Square, because she had never been there and I thought she deserved to taste the most delicious babka in America, especially because she’s a native Sabra. This turned out to be a better idea than I realized. She sent me an email later that day, saying, “Babka is so delicious. … it is dinner indeed! Sorry, kids, Mom hates to cook.”
Periel Aschenbrand: Tell me about this photo of Evan. Were you surprised to receive all those awards or did you know when you took it?
Elinor Carucci: No, I didn’t. You can’t. When I’m there with a person, there are so many other things to think about. You’re just trying to be the best person and photographer that you can. I told the magazine that in sensitive situations I discuss the image with the person and I work with them until they are happy. And if they are not happy, then it is not happening.
PA: That’s pretty unique for a photographer, no?
EC: It is, but with the stories I’ve been photographing for the past eight years there are a lot of very sensitive situations. I tell the magazine, “When I am there, I am on the side of the person.” I’m not putting the magazine first. I need to go to sleep feeling like I’m a good photographer on many levels. So it’s not every story. But, if it’s sensitive, then I feel it’s just the right thing to do. And it’s about trust.
PA: I think trust is a huge part of being a great photographer, or even someone who is able to achieve a certain level of photographic success.
EC: Believe it or not—and if we’re talking about Judaism here—it’s more about that I can’t deal with any kind of guilt.
PA: Hahaha, right.
EC: It’s not the integrity or the photography—it’s just Jewish mother guilt. Seriously.
PA: I believe you.
EC: And I changed the light a few times for Evan until he said, “Yes, this is me,” and he approved it.
PA: It’s nice.
EC: I’m nice.
PA: You are nice. You’re so, so nice.
EC: It’s not always good, but yes.
PA: It is good. In the end, it’s good. Speaking of Jewish mothers, I love this photo [right] of you and your mother.
EC: I love this photo. It’s this side of my mom that I love.
PA: How old were you started taking pictures?
EC: I was 15 and I started by taking pictures of my mom.
PA: Where are your parents from, originally?
EC: They were both born in Israel. My mom is half Bukharian and half Sephardic and my dad is half Syrian and half Italian-Moroccan. My mom is a typical Jewish mama, everything we did, she was very supportive. Both of my parents. And my home was very open, physically and emotionally.
PA: Well, there’s one thing to be supportive and then another to allow your child to take such revealing photographs of you, no?
EC: [My mother] opened up to me.
EC: Again, trust, yes.
PA: Maybe that’s why you are such an advocate for your subjects, because you were given so much trust so early on. And your kids, are they still into letting you photograph them?
EC: Even more, in a way. They understand what I do and they understand what I am trying to say and they open up to me even more. So far.
PA: So you started taking pictures at 15 and then…
EC: I just loved it. I played the piano and studied drama but with photography, I really got hooked and I felt—and I still feel—there was so much I could see and understand and absorb when I’m photographing. It’s like a different me. And I think that’s true for many people who have passions. It’s like a new you.
PA: So you knew you were good?
EC: I knew I loved it. I was fortunate enough to take a class at Musrara with Avi Sabag and for the first time someone told me, “You must do that, you’re really good!” And now I’m in touch with him again and he didn’t know he was so meaningful [to me]. He really helped me. Then when I was 17, I went to New York and went to ICP and I was like, I want to be a photographer.
PA: Amazing. And then?
EC: Then I went to the Israeli Army and then Bezalel Academy of Art and Design for four years and then, when I was 24, I moved to New York.
PA: I love that. Did you have photographers whose work you really loved?
EC: Yes! I have the three goddesses.
PA: Tell me!
EC: Mary Ellen Mark. Avi showed me her book, Falkland Road, the photographs of prostitutes and I was like, OH MY GOD. Work by a woman, the initimacy, the colors, she was really inspiring to me. And Nan Goldin and Sally Mann.
PA: Some might say your work is provocative. I love the image of you after your C-Section [left].
EC: Thank you. I never sold a print of it and I probably never will, but it’s an important and painful moment. I felt after I became a mom that it was very complex. Those moments with yourself, the new you, the anger and the love. So many emotions. So much more complex than the Madonna and child image that we see. And I wanted to show it all, all the layers and not to shy away from happy moments. I know it’s not trendy in the art world to talk about emotions and love. It became very cold and very conceptual. Not movies, not music—the art world. So I didn’t want to shy away from being sentimental and emotional. I don’t care. It doesn’t mean the work is not sophisticated and deep. And I didn’t want to shy away from showing the difficulties.
PA: You’re masterful at that. You do both.
EC: Thank you. Because life has both. I just follow life. And I want people to feel and to connect.
PA: I’ve always thought your work is incredibly open and super Israeli.
EC: I think my work is very Israeli. It’s rooted in Israel, in the family, in the warmth, in the closeness….and skin. In the openness.
PA: Right. In Israel, when you walk into someone’s home, everyone in the family is sitting on top of each other.
EC: And this is my work!
EC: I’m trying to talk about universal things but this is where it comes from. I was raised in Israel, in a very Israeli family.
PA: Speaking of Israeli families, we can move into the segment where I pry into your personal life and ask you a bunch of questions. What’s your favorite drink?
PA: How do you eat your eggs?
EC: In a salad.
PA: How do you drink your coffee?
EC: With milk and two sugars.
PA: What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?
PA: Did you have a bat mitzvah?
EC: Yes. I didn’t go up to the Torah but I gave a piano recital and I played Chopin.
PA: Wow! What did you wear?
EC: I didn’t like what I wore. I felt like such a nerd!
PA: It’s an awkward age, to be fair. What shampoo do you use?
EC: Whatever we get in the market.
PA: Gefilte fish or lox?
EC: Oshpelo! I am a Bukharian Jew. But as a Bukharian-Moroccan-Italian-Syrian-Spanish Jew, so if I have to choose I would choose the gefilte. My grandma used to make it because she learned it from her Polish neighbors in Jerusalem.
PA: Five things always in your bag?
EC: Red lipstick, keys, credit card, and money.
EC: No! I never have the camera with me unless I’m going for a shoot.
PA: Interesting. Very unusual for a photographer! Favorite pair of shoes?
EC: Flip flops.
PA: That’s super Israeli, too, by the way.