Subtle Beauty

Elinor Carucci Captures the Messy, Beautiful Reality of Motherhood

‘Mother’ isn’t your run-of-the-mill glossy photo book of a gorgeous Madonna and child. But while Elinor Carucci snaps the harsh realities of life with twins, she also finds beauty.

Elinor Carucci/INSTITUTE

From Madonna and child to Angelina and Maddox, we are inundated with posed images of the beautiful mother and her blessed, serene progeny. Tabloids pay huge sums for the right to publish pictures of glamorous celebrities and their well-behaved children, and praise the starlet for her adorable daughter or son…as well as for her rapid weight loss. Elinor Carucci, the photographer behind the recently released book Mother, wants to shift the visual narrative of motherhood, rejecting superficiality and turning her lens on the harsh realities and subtle beauty of her own maternal journey.

In Mother, Carucci takes on the subject of motherhood with an artist’s lens and a surgeon’s scalpel. She confronts the pop culture tropes and twists them, turning the camera on herself and her twins. Charting her pregnancy, Carucci boldly catalogs her own changing form. When her son and daughter are born, they become the two new players in these revelatory scenes, their infant bodies latching onto Carucci’s own, their small faces struggling to find their mother, to comprehend the newness of it all. As her children grow and mature, Carucci sheds light on the complicated web of love that binds them: the daily trials, the explosive fights, and the tender revelations. Every day, Carucci discovers them anew, with the pride of a mother watching her children become themselves; their bodies morphing and elongating as they come to interact with and comprehend the world around them. “I capture the years that will never come back,” Carucci explains.

For Mother, the 42-year-old photographer assembled 125 images taken over the course of a decade. The impetus behind the project, she tells The Daily Beast, was to capture the intensity of her own experience becoming a mother. “I really wanted to photograph it in a way that will convey the complexity of it, not in an idealizing way,” she says.

Carucci has a wealth of experience in drawing material from her own life. Her previous two books are both concerned with similarly intimate topics, dealing in images sourced from her personal and professional lives. So it was natural for Carucci to start photographing her pregnancy. She says, however, that the implications of her most recent project extend beyond the realm of the personal. By delving into her own experience, Carucci was able to examine more deeply the universality of motherhood. From speaking with other parents, she gleaned the importance of capturing “the little everyday dramas, when you’re brushing your daughter’s hair and she screams at you; when you’re angry and screaming and tired and frustrated.” Confronted with the harsh difficulties of motherhood, Carucci was struck with the importance of trying to “embrace this experience as we are,” to accept one’s own imperfections, as mothers and women, and still to forgive oneself and “try to enjoy the beauty of our loved ones, because this is really the most important thing in our lives.”

Carucci’s images tell an eternal story, but in a new and arresting way. Her ease with physical exposure, she says, is a direct result of her Israeli heritage. “It’s a part of my culture,” she says. “I think it’s a healthy, positive part.” Carucci uses physical openness to convey to her children that bodies are not meant to be hidden. While she understands that by American standards, some might think of her work as provocative, she says “being open and being warm and sensual” with her children is an important facet of her parenting technique. This maternal sensuality, she adds, is in no way an attempt to sexualize her children or herself.

Like any mother, Carucci encountered difficulties in explaining her work to her children, made more complicated by the fact that they are often her key subjects. Still, “Their friends are photographed, I think, almost more than them by their amateur parent photographers,” she notes. “And I was so aware, and so afraid that they would hate me and the camera, that I took less pictures than the parents around me.” Carucci’s children’s friends have pictures of themselves pasted all over Instagram and Facebook, but “the difference is that I’m a professional photographer…I’m after more personal moments, moments that are more intense in their lives, and not just the pretty birthday party moments,” she says.

While Carucci’s son was quick to accept her impromptu photography sessions, her daughter had a harder time coming to terms with her role in her mother’s work. Carucci describes a conversation the two had when her daughter was 5 or 6, and the little girl confronted her mother, accusing her of taking pictures that are “not pretty.” Carucci’s daughter was familiar with her mother’s magazine work and didn’t understand why she wasn’t being idealized and beautified like the models in those photographs. “We had a conversation, and I think she came to understand my way of being in the world,” Carucci says. “She got to hear what I think and that I think for me, her and her brother and my husband are inspiring, and our family and all our moments and all our days are something I see the beauty in, even if it’s not a pretty picture.”

But Carucci’s work is about more than just capturing the real interactions that bookend the posed moments. Her mission to reveal her lived reality is also a concrete homage to feminists and the feminist movement itself. “The women who really had to pay the dues were the women who were pioneers in feminism,” she says. “I think they had to pay many times, giving up motherhood and giving up femininity to pave the way, but now that the way is paved, thanks to them I can be a mother and a woman and a feminist.”

In addition to showing her gratitude to pioneering feminists and revealing the intimate and universal truths of motherhood, Carucci has managed to assemble an incomparable photo album. “It’s really hard to keep losing moments every day and nothing ever comes back. I think there’s something comforting about photography, professional or not, in that way,” she says. Still, she mourns the images she could have captured were it not for the constant demands of mothering, when she “had to hug and feed and lift up and comfort.” While Carucci the photographer may see these moments as missed opportunities, her transition into motherhood has taught her that “you have to live your life first, and then take pictures,” she says.