Elinor Carucci

James Hyman Gallery

Elinor Carucci gives a formal slant to diaristic photography. Her subject is herself and her family; the focus is narrow; there is little sense of what might be on the other side of the wall, outside the frame. Yet the images are not claustrophobic. Nor are they ever raw or chaotic. Instead, they are almost classically composed. In an interview, the New York–based Israeli photographer has said that at the beginning of her career, she “was worried about staged work. I was trying to make everything like a snapshot, very spontaneous, because I wanted it to be true, to be honest. I then realized I’m never spontaneous because I’m photographing myself, so I’m always posing, always aware, always staged.” The photograph becomes a medium in which the subject (including the autobiographical subject) deploys a rhetoric of gestures whose confessionalism and artifice are inseparable.

The nineteen images on view in this exhibition ranged in date from 1996 to 2008 and showed a striking consistency from the beginning of Carucci’s career until now. All the pictures depict one or two people indoors. They are tightly framed and usually show just part of the figure. Color is subdued, moody—except that a bright red frequently cuts through the rectangle like a splash of blood. Odd continuities reveal themselves across the years. For instance, Cherries I Ate by Myself, 2003, shows a man and a woman sitting on either side of a pink bedspread—the photographer and her husband, we understand, though neither face is shown. Their nakedness presumes their intimacy but is belied in the way they turn away from each other, which makes the distance between them seem vast. At the center of the image is a bowl of cherries of which the woman alone partakes, though she holds the fruit in an awkward manner that suggests only the most desultory interest in this quintessential symbol of sensuality. Two years later, we see a child’s face completely smeared with the fruit’s juice in Cherries, 2005. It’s not that the child’s greedy indulgence constitutes an answer to whatever it was that came between the parents, yet the conceptual rhyme between the two images overlays both of them with a poignant feeling of fatefulness, like the return of a Wagnerian leitmotif—it triggers our recognition of the recurrence of something irreconcilable. This sense of recurrence is already there in My Mother and I in a Hotel Room, 1998, in which parent and child, swathed in towels in the dimly lit room, face each other as in a mirror, surprisingly nearly identical for all the difference in years—not two women but one woman reflected, as if at a different time of her life, the elder seeing her own youth or the younger seeing herself as she will be in the future.

The exhibition title, “Intimacy,” points to what I find to be the strangeness of Carucci’s project, which arises from her capacity to put a caesura into the middle of these intimate moments in order to take a picture of them. An image like Cherries I Ate by Myself does not, to all appearances, originate in emotion recollected in tranquility. Rather, it’s the eye of the storm. The stillness of the image is very uncomfortable. The blank tension is eerie. As a viewer, one wants to fall back on the knowledge that, after all, this is staged—but Carucci’s work reminds us that what is staged can still be real.

Barry Schwabsky