Peek Inside the Mind of Compé ’15 Juror Elinor Carucci

Compé ’15 juror Elinor Carucci is a photographer best known for her intensely emotional images of family intimacy. Her critically acclaimed 2013 monograph Mother comprises personal views of both blissful and painful moments in her own family, taken over the course of nine years. Her powerful portraits of preemies were featured in TIME Magazine earlier this year; other editorial work has appeared in People, Newsweek, New York Magazine, and the New York Times.

We are honored to host this outstanding photographer as this year’s Compé guest juror and keynote speaker at ONWARD Summit on March 14, 2015. As part of our preparations for this year’s ONWARD happenings, we recently talked to Elinor Carucci about her creative process, her advice to emerging photographers, and what sets a great photo apart from the rest. Check out the slideshow above and interview below for personal insight from this year’s Compé judge.

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Is your commercial work very distinct from your personal projects, or is there a connection between them? 

The relationship between the personal and the commercial work is tight. Especially with the editorial work that I’ve been doing over the last few years. I’m mainly photographing families, stories that have to do with intimacy, relationships, couples, mothers, fathers, siblings, situations that involve pain—emotional or physical. So I approach those stories as the same photographer: it’s the same person, the same eyes and heart. Of course I cannot go as deep as I go with my family, but there is—not even a connection—it’s almost the same thing. It’s just that with my family and myself there are almost no limits to how much I can do and how far I can go. I can work over time with my daughter or my husband. With the people I photograph for magazines, I’m lucky if I have four days. But they are all talking about people, love, disappointment, pain: us as human beings.


Describe your experience of editing your work. Others have described editing as highly emotional, even painful. Can you relate to that?

The experience of editing the work can be painful, and it takes a long time. One of the reasons I don’t come up with projects frequently is that I want to let them get older. I want to let the images go through a few rounds of editing. Actually the first editing is happening when—I shoot digitally—when I’m not copying all the images from the card. I will maybe copy half. Then I show it to my husband, and he chooses the ones I edit with him. Then I look at it again and edit it again. Then I’ll show it to two of my best friends who are great photographers as well. And then I will maybe make small prints of it. So it takes time. And I keep on editing until I have a book or a show, and then I have to do the final edit. By then I usually know how I feel—which images work, which images I have too many of, and I have to reduce them.


What can you tell us about exhibiting your photos? How is seeing your images on the wall different from seeing them in a book? 

Everything is different! Exhibiting is very different from publishing a book, showing in a group show is different than a solo show, doing a solo show in a small room is different than doing a big show or a mini retrospective in a museum. Exhibiting in a commercial gallery, there is also the consideration of what is sellable and what is not sellable. When you show at a museum this is not the consideration, but you do want to find images that will lure the audience in.

Bottom line is that for me, the format that is right for me, and that is the most fulfilling, is a book. Because I’m able to tell a story with a book. To include images that are maybe not the most amazing images in a way, but are more subtle or quiet. I can include a big body of work. So I really love making books. But there are also exhibitions that told the story. Especially when you have a larger space, and you can really create a rhythm and a narrative.

Mother drives me in the rain, 2000

When you look at photographs, what factors affect your judgment the most? Is there a particular quality or response that distinguishes a great photo? 

I think I would be lying if I said something other than emotional. It doesn’t mean that there has to be people in the picture, but when I look at a photograph I want to be moved, intellectually or emotionally. I think the great photos are the ones that somehow go deeper emotionally for me. That’s why many times I can go to galleries and see things that seem very cold, and not be so moved. Or I can just open the front page of the New York Times and see a picture on my way out in the morning—and it really stops me and takes over. So I think it’s emotions.


What advice can you offer to emerging photographers? 

There are a few. One is to take a deep breath and know that this is a long road. Along the road, you have your high moments and down moments, and you have to be ready for that and be persistent. The other advice is to stay yourself. It’s simple, but stay yourself with your work. Don’t let the trends drive you crazy. Stay with who you are. If you’re a very social high-energy person, go out to openings and meet people. If you’re not, just pick a few events or try to make one-on-one personal meetings. Try to recognize who you are, what’s your talent, and do the right kind of work in terms of your photographs, and also the right kind of social promotion that goes with your work. Don’t try to impress people in a way that is not who you are.

my mother and I ,2002

What relationships have been instrumental in advancing your career?

I think the most important relationship that advanced my career is, funnily enough, my relationship with my family. I don’t think you can take all the refusals, the turn-downs, the disappointments, if you don’t have support at home. Of course relationships with my dealer, with students, with the chair of the department I teach in, are extremely important. But without my mother, my father, my husband, my children, I don’t think I could have survived this. Even when I have a bad period of things not working out—things are being canceled or shows are not happening—I have the support at home, and the support of my friends. So I feel that it’s good to build relationships and trust, and professional relationships, but it’s actually the relationships with family and friends that enable us to survive in this very competitive, challenging career.


Tell us about your future directions as a photographer. What can we expect from you next?

I’m going to keep photographing people: myself, other people, strangers, friends, family—and try to get into something universal. With my work, I want to talk to everyone. It’s not just to the photo audience or the art audience, or mothers or fathers. It’s to all of us, about who we are, what makes us who we are, what makes this world a place that’s worth living in. It will just be the same me. I just want to go deeper and show more, explore more, and come up with more images that will touch other people.

Want More Interviews?

Take a look at the conversation we had with curator Richard Torchia about forming relationships with the professionals who can help you exhibit, publish, and promote your work.