The Intimate and the Beautiful: Elinor Carucci in Context

by Ruth Rosengarten

Elinor-Carucci-Bath--004There are times when someone else’s work gives you a stab of uneasy rivalry: “I wish I’d made/written/thought that.” It happens not with any old work one admires, but, rather, when the work in question hovers around your own ideals or ambitions. The photographs I have taken have, until quite recently, been merely tangential to my professional aspirations. But as an avid, long term documenter of my own life, when I saw those of Elinor Carucci, I felt the rub and I wondered how she’d pulled them off. The question wasn’t a technical one, but rather, personal: how did she get her mother, her husband, her children, even her grandparents, to collude in that intimate photographic encounter? I remember countless attempts at getting close to my mother with the camera, to which innumerable photographs of her elbow and sleeve attest. “It’s for the sake of Art,” I would moan. “Go do your art somewhere else,” she would invariably retort. I am, in short, aware of how intrusive the camera can be in family life, even when it just sits there on the table, filled with prying, accusatory potential.

The work of Elinor Carucci (in the exhibition Intimacy, at the James Hyman Gallery in London, 07.01.2010 – 20.02.2010, and in the book Closer) has invited me to ponder again on the nature of the photographic artefact, on the relationship between the subject and the object of that mechanically or digitally captured gaze, and on the interplay between the aesthetic and the intimate.
Born in Israel in 1971 and resident in New York for over a decade, Carucci has placed her self and her close family at the centre of her photographic practice. She captures the pucker of a parental kiss, or the intimate scrape of skin on skin. Zooming out, we see her mother in underwear and hair curlers clasping her father in a warm or conciliatory embrace. We are introduced to Eran, her husband (also a photographer), whom we see close up as the recipient of a playful-serious bite, or against whose naked torso she presses her own gorgeous one, long hair aflame in late afternoon light in a hotel room. Holding her newborn twins, Eden and Emmanuelle, one to each full breast, Carucci evokes a Renaissance ideal of maternal tranquility, but later, it is a reluctant, pulling away child that her naked body enfolds in the bath. Together, they play out the drama of intimacy: the desire for fusion on the one hand, the longing for independence on the other.  Again in the bath (there are many baths!), we see the artist and her cousin Nataly, both lissom and lovely, their bodies alike as peas in a proverbial pod. Through frosted glass, we catch a back view of her grandfather lathering himself in the shower.  An infant’s snot, or the tiny disturbance of hair clippings on a little girl’s worried brow, or the curiosity of a small child about her mother’s pubic hair: these become subjects as grave and significant as life’s larger moments. More accurately, they become the very substance that forms the mnemonic background out of which those larger events are also shaped.
elinorcarucci3Carucci is particularly good at exploring the tiniest bodily details and evoking their attendant sensations of pain or comfort, irritation or consolation, in ways that invite our corporeal empathy.We can almost feel the bump and stretch and stitch of a recently delivered belly – her own, or the cold, corrosive smudge of bleach cream on stomach hair, again her own. The smear of cherries around a child’s mouth, the tenderness of a bruise, the warmth of a patch of sunlight. With Carucci, we pronounce the ‘ouch’ of a cut and stitched finger or a hair plucked from a nipple. And how familiar the marks left in sleep by a crumpled sheet on a naked chest; the chapped corner of a mouth, a shaved armpit, the rub of a stockinged foot on the floor, the imprint left by a bra or a zip on skin. Menstrual blood, children’s tears, the uneasy proximity of the bare skin of parents and adult children: what, the photographs invite us to ask, is off limits?

In all her interviews, Carucci recognises that her viewers might expect a definition of those limits: she knows she’s on shaky ground. For her photographs hyperbolise the already existing tension between intimacy and power in family life, and she knows that holding the camera gives her a kind of omniscience that is negotiable only with the adult members of the family.  She catches herself running for the camera when her father is ill, and then stopping herself. “I don’t pounce on my mother when she’s waking up,” she says. “Don’t get the camera when I have a fight with Eran.  Don’t stand aside to document when someone is crying.”  And yet the photographs do capture ailments, awakenings, estrangement, tears.  Perhaps what is disingenuous here is the use of the word “document”: it gives us the wrong idea of how the transaction occurs between this photographer and her models. For, like many photographic documenters of their own families (Larry Sultan, Tina Barney, Philip Lorca diCorcia, Sally Mann are the examples that spring to my mind) Carucci’s photographs are, for the most part, staged rather than spontaneous.  Most family portraits that we see in art galleries, rather than exhibitions of documentary work, tend to be wholly or partially staged.  Indeed, it would be hard to imagine how it might be otherwise, although for an unusual glimpse of what a spontaneous shot of family life might look like, one could turn to someone like Richard Billingham’s evocation of unemployment, alcoholism and obesity on a council estate.

ac091b8ed084cc0effc014b4581d394dThrough her dramatically lit and consummately composed photographs, we are introduced to the cast of characters that inhabits Carucci’s intimate life. But more than this, we are given a picture of a particular kind of life: one where beautiful people with perfectly unblemished skins – people who feel at ease in their bodies – walk around naked at home and don’t mind being photographed.  In their quality of exquisite arrest, Carucci’s pictures invite us to ponder whether or how, precisely, she achieves the balance between the potentially narcissistic exercise of self exposure, on the one hand, and the potentially exploitative disclosure of others, on the other. (Unbearably, a photograph from the seriesCrisis/Pain, made while her marriage was in trouble and showing Carucci and her husband embracing, is titled First Tears Over Another Man, telling us almost more than we want to know.)

Together, the beauty of almost everyone in Carucci’s photographs, and the beauty of the images that she produces, raise difficulties in equal measure to the pleasure they afford.  In Crisis/Pain, for example, it is through the distancing prism of beauty that we are made aware of tension or estrangement, anger and reconciliation. Beauty both sharpens the pain in question, and renders it more remote and unreal: such are the dangers and paradoxes of the aesthetic. Carucci’s work constantly prods us to ask ourselves what the differences are between the beauty of a person (herself, her mother, her husband, her children, her cousin: a family of rare allure) and aestheticisation as a procedure to which the photographer may, or may not, submit her work. It is an old concern in photography, already present, say, in the loving and erotic photographs that Alfred  Stieglitz took, between 1918 and 1937, of his naked wife, the artist Georgia O’Keefe. For in photography, perhaps as in life, lovingness and eroticism can be at odds: eroticism in photographs tends to objectify the beloved, even where love personalises him or her.  Together with the easy slide that it suggests between representation and reality, the fact that photography so readily eroticises its objects, while freezing them, is in part responsible for the perceived danger of photographing children, even one’s own, and especially naked children. I shall return to this.

georgia o'keefeThe shades of attitude that tinge our responses as viewers to what we consider beautiful or not is central to an experience of eroticisation and aesthetic objectification, and so it is often a biographic or anatomical accident (whether the person is young or old, thin or fat, and so on) that strongly conditions our response to a photographed person. The investment of eroticism in the visual field has spawned a rich seam of psychoanalytically based feminist consideration about the roles of observer and observed in the history of art in general, and in photography in particular. In this vein, several contemporary photographers (usually, though not exclusively, women) have turned the camera on their own bodies in a bid to explore our proclivity to favour and eroticise the beautiful. Such works invite us to see skin and flesh not as the objects of desire, but as vehicles of pain and decay.

In black and white photographs that are sometimes life size or larger, John Coplans (1920-2003) gives us blunt studies of his own aging body. His face always remains outside the frame, and in this, his works are in keeping with a tradition of photography that seeks to find elements of abstraction in the body, and especially in the body represented as a series of fragments. But Coplans’ frank images also push against the grain of a cultural ideal of masculine corporeality – youthful, excercised, toned: the body as carapace or armour.

coplans In his important study on the nude published in 1956, art historian Kenneth Clark described thecuirasse ésthetique, a formalised schema of the male torso that was used in antiquity as the basis for the design of armour, but that also stood, Clark argued, as a bodily ideal:the powerful male body, heroic and in control.  The body as armour – the idealised masculine body – also stands as an amulet against the dangers represented by the softer, more permeable flesh of women, dangers that are traditionally symbolised by menstruation and pregnancy.By positioning himself in anti-heroic or even embarrassing stances and showing us the uneven hairiness of his body, its cushiony stomach and flaccid skin and genitals, Coplans is, in effect, also feminising himself.

noggle1982_363Referring to her self portraits as her “saga of fallen flesh,” Anne Noggle (1922-2005) boldly charts the process of her own aging. It is in her lack of vanity and simultaneous ambivalence towards aging, that Noggle’s work is fiercest, funniest, and most poignant, especially when she stares at us from eyes bruised, swollen and stitched after a facelift. More baldly still, Jo Spence (1934-1992) tracked her own confrontation with, and responses to, breast cancer, from which she was to die, having refused conventional treatment. Together with her partner Rosy Martin, Spence developed a therapeutic process (“putting oneself in the picture”) that entailed re-staging and photographing painful events from a subject’s past, mainly focussing on the subject’s feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness.  In thus performing – and making visible – narratives of self and then viewing and working with the photograph, Spence and Martin hoped to sponsor a photo-cure as an equivalent to the more conventional talking cures of psychotherapy and  psychoanalysis. Nothing could be further from Elinor Carucci’s portrayals of herself naked than Coplans’ or Noggle’s self portraits, or than Spence’s politicised agenda of alienation and confrontation. Purposefully using the unaffected, unflatteringly harsh lighting of the passport mugshot, Spence makes a point of stripping her self exposure of any hint of an address to the desiring eye. In preferring to look at Carucci’s photographs (a question both of aesthetics and empathy), we would surely be ratifying, for Spence, the very point she is making, that voyeurism and exhibitionism– the erotic pleasures of looking and being seen – constitute the enemy of an authentic feminine subjectivity. She captured a particularly puritan moment in feminism.

But, as I have already observed, the question of beauty is not one that concerns only the object of the photographic gaze, but also the procedure of the photographer, even where photographer and model are the same person. Lighting, background detail, framing, focus and depth of field: all of these can be harnessed to advance the aestheticisation of the person or situation being photographed, or to undermine it. In Ballad of Sexual Dependency, her famous visual diary begun in 1979, Nan Goldin (b. 1953) deploys clearly de-aestheticising strategies: harsh lighting, occasional blurs, and apparently artless, casual framing. Her work reveals the extent to which the notion of intimacy might spread from its most obvious nest to other locations; from the couple or the family in the domestic space to the workplace or other spaces of shared experience: bars and bath houses, hospitals and rest homes, these create frameworks for contingent intimacies. Indeed, such intimacy might also entail common practices rather than concrete spaces or overlapping daily lives: occasional but regular joggers, dog walkers, teachers and students, people who engage in fetishistic practices all create pockets of potentially profound closeness.

But because it always plays itself out against other relational dynamics, intimacy, Goldin’s work suggests, must also incorporate loneliness: there is desperation at the heart of this work. Goldin’s first photographs were taken while she was still a teenager, in a bid to reclaim experiences that drink and drugs might otherwise have obliterated: “I became social and started drinking and wanted to remember the details of what happened.”  But considering her Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Nan Goldin also recognised that the real motivation behind the project was her attempt symbolically to regain access to her older sister who committed suicide when still a teenager and whose memory, Goldin felt, was slipping away. Her affecting images of friends and lovers, many of whom were later to die of Aids, look stylistically a lot like those many of us today have on our computers or mobile phones or Facebook page, snapshots of people bleary eyed at parties or sleazy bars, in taxis or trains, hotel rooms or beaches. Perhaps it is for this reason that Goldin is seen as one of the forerunners of the so-called “snapshot aesthetic” that is more commonplace today. Apparently impromptu and serendipitous, such work sometimes makes viewers uncomfortable about whether or not what they are looking at is “art”.Nan goldin

Contrary to Goldin’s, Carucci’s works, as I have already noted, are artful in the extreme: in their appropriation of the tradition of the tableau or the detail-as-monument, they reach us via the expectations generated not by personal snapshots, but by the conventions we associate with “Art”.  In particular, those expectations would entail the notion that the artist homes in on the specific in order to make a general point. And indeed, for Carucci, distillations of specificity contain an essence that is, in quite an old fashioned way, not current or political, but universal. In the delicate caress, the grimace, the stretch mark or the crease of skin, we are taken outside the beautiful middle class home, shaken and surprised, but also reminded of what we already know about love or anger, maternity or aging.

Perhaps the most tender of these universal themes – and also the most contested – is that of the relation of mothers and children. Carucci is not alone in being moved by her experience of maternity and by her children themselves, and wanting to capture that fleeting experience photographically. In I’m the King of the Castle (1997), a series of photographs of her son, then six years old, Terry Kurgan (b. 1958) delicately attempted to touch upon the ambivalent intimacy between the mother behind the lens and the child in front of it, while exploring the taboo terrain of child sexuality. The photographs of this little boy are touching explorations of his experiments in identity formation. His vulnerability and nakedness, coupled with an empowering and playful role-playing, simultaneously evoke anxieties about child abuse and a distilled wonder at the achey burgeoning of personhood. Ten years later, Kurgan was still to comment: “When people meet me for the first time, [they] still say: ‘Oh, you’re that artist who takes pictures of her children without their clothes on!’”

sally_mann_immediate_family_1More notoriously still, in 1992, Sally Mann (b. 1951) exhibited black and white photographs of her three children, many of them exquisite and unsettling nude shots taken in the few years preceding their adolescence. The show resulted in the publication of the book Immediate Family. (Much more recently, in a collection of photographs and subsequent book titled Proud Flesh, Mann shows photographs of her naked husband, Larry, who suffers from a form of muscular dystrophy). Like Carucci’s, Mann’s photographs are staged, but hers are more often than not set in the landscape of rural Virginia where both Mann and her children grew up. Both technically and in their content, these photographs appear to strain towards the condition of an earlier, (if mythical) time, when nakedness represented a kind of self absorbed innocence and at-oneness with nature. Yet they are bursting with sexuality. Where the little girls perform adulthood with a candy cigarette, or experiment with their mother’s earrings and make up, they look eerily grown up, oversexualised like Brooke Shields in Louis Malle’s film Pretty Baby, a precociousness that not only lays itself open to all sorts of abuse, but that also exposes an acute cultural anxiety about that abuse.

The lighting and stillness of Mann’s portrayals of her children, who are – as children will be – bruised or scratched or stung, submerged in water or mud, make the children look as if they have been manhandled, touched. It is a fiction, but one that Mann exploits. And of course this is facilitated by the fact that she uses black and white photography, which easily fudges the difference between resin and blood, or snot and semen, imbuing these photographs with an air of impending – or already realised – menace. It is, as Marianne Hirsch has observed, “childhood represented with a particularly charged cultural context that pits the rights of children against the rights of mothers, that represents the family as potentially abusive, that sexualizes nudity and takes it as the measure of violence and transgression.”sally mannn 3

This is also the context in which Elinor Carucci takes and shows her photographs, except that now, anxiety has probably escalated to panic. But Carucci’s photographs do not raise the spectre of incest, and touch not so much on concerns about paedophilia (though they might invite such desire) as more generally concerns about the unilateral nature of parental (or indeed adult) power. Carucci’s photographs of her children, either on their own or with her, arouse an uneasy fantasy of maternal omnipotence, so comforting, yet so overwhelming and frightening in its moral implications. For if her parents and her husband have the power to answer back, to censor and withhold, her children do not. Talking to Jenny Murray on Women’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 (7 January 2010), Carucci acknowledged that, when her children are grown up, the important question will not be what they thought of their mother’s work, but what they thought of their mother.

While Carucci remains far more restrained than Sally Mann in her representation of child nudity, her tender and sensuous portrayals of her children show her to be tiptoeing through this mined terrain in a bid to negotiate a revision of childhood, and to reclaim something of a sense of familial innocence – to use a difficult word – in the maternal gaze, while remaining cognizant of the potential for the fetishisation and eroticisation of these images. This is a well-nigh impossible project, and one that begs for the viewer’s constant self reminder than in regarding photography, context is of the essence if one is to understand the personal, social and ideological operations that photographic meaning mobilises.

The history of photography has been intimately linked to the memorialisation of the lives of individuals, of ordinary people. Photographs form an intimate part of people’s family archives, and indeed, play a constitutive role in the construction of family histories and memories. “Cameras go with family life,” Susan Sontag noted in her inspiring study of photography. “Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of itself, a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness.” To this extent, while formally aspiring to the condition of art, Carucci’s work assimilates the genre of the everyday snapshot, the photographs we take of ourselves, our parents, our children and pets: humble documents that serve us as reminders not only of what we did, but also of who we are, and of where we stand; bulwarks against the losses that they themselves also invoke.

In all their unsettling beauty, in their vexation of the categories of the private and the public, Carucci’s photographs explore the problems inherent in photographic practice per se. In doing so, they are convincing, I think, as exercises in truth finding: “Sometimes, the photographs came before I could articulate what it was that triggered them, giving form to some unformed feeling . . . The camera is, in fact, often less biased than my eyes.” Finally, Carucci’s works are arresting because in them one senses the complexity of the roles the camera is enlisted to play: a boundary that both distances and links, her prosthetic eye is not an intruder but is an instrument of change, a catalyst.   “You could say,” she muses “that the camera is giving us legitimacy to do something that we were afraid to do – to be softer, not so defensive.”

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Notes

1. Elinor Carucci, in Closer: Photographs by Elinor Carucci, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2002, p. 10.
2. Nan Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Aperture, New York, 1986, p.9.
3. Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, 1997, p. 153.
4.  Susan Sontag, On Photography, Penguin Books, London, (1971) 1977, p. 8.
5.  Elinor Carucci, in Closer, p. 10-11.
6. Rachel Been, “Interview with Elinor Carucci,”posted on June 9, 2009, http://network.slideluckpotshow.com/profiles/blogs/interview-with-elinor-carucci

Ruth Rosengarten

ruthrosengarten.com