The Most Intimate Dance: Elinor Carucci’s Photos of Motherhood

Elinor Carucci—INSTITUTE
Elinor Carucci—INSTITUTE
Induced, 2004

This project, the third monograph by Elinor Carucci, follows a logical trajectory from her earlier work. Closer (2002), chronicled her tumultuous relationship with her husband and parents through incidences of infidelity (hers), too much dope (her husband’s) and her parents fractious relationship and eventual divorce. The mood was gentle, though, with plenty of high notes; the everyday ebb and flow of relationships were lovingly and lavishly documented, while the larger narratives played out in the background.

Diary of a Dancer (2008) changed direction slightly and concentrated on Carrucci’s life as a professional Middle Eastern dancer, acting as the hired entertainment for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs around the five boroughs of New York. It showed the loneliness, physicality and endurance of endless subway rides and blistered feet between the sparkle and exoticism of her performances.

Elinor Carucci Mother von

Courtesy of Prestel/Verlagsgruppe Random House

The cover of Elinor Carucci's third monograph, Mother.

Mother shifts gear again. It starts with her pregnant with twins and concludes when they are 8 years old – a moment when Caruccci saw a change and a growing independence in her children. The intimacy and sensuality for which she has become so well known is amplified and, as she says in her introduction, she has never seen so much as she does as a mother. Her gaze has certainly become more intense, and her actions stronger, as she hugs, dresses, holds, licks, pulls, feeds, caresses and cares for her children. The little-discussed eroticism that so often exists between mother and child is played out honestly and easily – a beautiful, fluid link between generations.

As with Carucci’s other work, the everyday is the focus of and propulsive force behind the book, as multiple layers of reality unfold in her concentration on detail. Meals, parties, subway journeys, daydreams, fights — they’re all chronicled here. But the book is also an exploration of national identity and how having children in a different country from your own makes one look at that country more acutely. It makes an immigrant engage in one’s adopted home in a way that was easy to avoid before.

Both Closer and Diary of a Dancer were their best when the photos were indoors and intimate, but led by her children Carucci is forced out of doors, to the streets, playgrounds and school. It opens her up to document life in the city, meaning that in some elemental ways, the book is as much about New York as it is about her family.

There are photos made in McDonald’s, and outside Duane Reade. Resolutely American holidays like Halloween and quintessentially New York giant pretzels from street vendors feature in a way that would have been unimaginable in her earlier work. Her children are American; she has lived in New York for nearly 20 years (she emigrated from Israel), and the differences between the two cultures are implicitly infuse the pictures.

Photographically, having children allows her to look at the city afresh and her wonderment and pleasure in photographing is palpable. The sidewalks and subway stations are places where emotions are expressed just as openly as behind closed doors – something one has to very quickly get used to as a parent in New York. In this, Carucci continues to do what she does best: namely, dealing seamlessly with the collapse of private and public space.

In his 2005 novel, Saturday, Ian McEwan writes beautifully about the inevitable letting go that parents must enact as children grow older and more independent. The book’s narrator, a middle-aged neurosurgeon, feels that wrenching sense of loss as he watches his son’s fingers slipping through his own as his son walks up a flight of stairs, away from his father. Carucci captures much of that same profound, inevitable sense of loss in her photographs. But in Mother, rather than dwelling on melancholy, the images celebrate the connection between twin brother and sister, and a mother’s attempts to see, feel and express her enduring relationship with her children.

Elinor Carucci is an Israeli-American photographer based in New York. Her third monograph, Mother, is available through Prestel. LightBox previously profiled Carucci’s earlier work here.

Susan Bright is a New York-based writer and curator. Her upcoming book, Home Truths: Photography and Motherhood, is available through Art/Books from November 30, 2013. Bright previously wrote for LightBox about her favorite photographers turned music-video directors.

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