Middle-aged women have long been treated as the punchlines of jokes in popular culture – as the crazy witches at the end of the street, or worse, as invisible members of society who cease to exist once their reproductive years are over. But a host of artists have recently focused their attention on the experiences of women in midlife, from Darcey Steinke’s Flash Count Diary to Susan P Matterns’ The Slow Moon Climbs.
This new wave of attention is joined by photographer Elinor Carucci’s Midlife. In her introduction to the book, Kristen Roupenian writes that Carucci’s photographs invoke the “intense, exhausting self-monitoring that can feel like an inescapable part of owning a female body”.
I met with Carucci in the kitchen of her lower Manhattan home, where so many of her photographs have been taken. We talked for more than two hours while her twin teenagers visited with friends in a room down the hall.
Ann Neumann: What became very clear to me in menopause is how much of a woman’s value to society is determined by her appearance. Whatever currency my appearance once gave me, it was quickly changing, making room for other interests and concerns. There’s a kind of bravery to showing your true ageing body.
Elinor Carucci: I don’t really see it as me being brave. I mean, I was the class clown because I wasn’t a good-looking teenager; my nickname was Wall because I didn’t develop. I became really funny and I was always making fun of my body. People say the work is brave and I take the compliment but I feel it’s more like an attempt at connection.
AN: But there’s also a lot of beauty in the photographs: you’re beautiful.
EC: Thank you, Ann, thank you.
AN: And I know that helps your career.
EC: It does.
AN: How do you think of your own beauty?
EC: I am a feminist, but I still want to look beautiful. I still want to look younger. It’s not like you’re either a feminist who doesn’t care about the way you look, or you’re a stupid, shallow woman who does.
AN: When I turned 50 last year, I realized that I was relieved of the effort to participate in all the behavior that surrounds reproduction, looking a particular kind of attractive. I was afraid of becoming invisible, but also relieved that it was approaching.
EC: You really look so much younger than 50.
AN: Thank you! But also think about that!
EC: As a compliment that we give each other … I know. I’m thinking about it a lot, but still I had to say it.
AN: Ha! And then I say: “Thank you!”
EC: We all want to look beautiful and there’s a reason for it. What has to change really is the opportunities we’re given as women – professional, economic. But I will probably want to be beautiful for the rest of my life.
AN: So the way we define beauty is culturally constructed.
EC: Very much so.
AN: Even the types of attention that women’s work and men’s work receive can be different. We receive publicity and recognition through different routes. Routes that don’t confer the same respect.
EC: And don’t translate into the same amount of money. I’m sorry to talk about money.
AN: No, money’s important! We’ve already talked about the attention we receive, the attention that our work is given … But what about the attention that we women give to things and how this changes?
EC: I’m just speaking my mind more. I approach and talk to people more. I say to my kids: “I’m not crazy guys, I’m just reaching out to the world.” I have fewer years as I grow older. Just let me enjoy the world.
AN: In the afterword to Midlife, you write that red is the color of an “angry loss” that you feel. “My blood looked the same,” despite all of the other losses: being reproductive, being needed as a mother, being attractive, being visible, being relevant. “I am unnecessary, I am a woman without a uterus.” I felt this loss too. What recourse do we have as ageing women? Is the only corrective to thinking that our lives are less valuable now to say: “No they’re not.” I’m vital, I’m doing important work?
EC: Making the book was my fight. The pictures are as good [as before], the sex is as good (it’s a little different, but you know), I’m still a mother – maybe a better mother? Maybe I’m a better teacher. I really wanted to celebrate this time and even my marriage.
AN: So we need to move away from thinking that youth is the best years of our lives?
EC: I think it’s a really beautiful thing [for my husband and I] to go through all these years, to now go to Trader Joe’s together and buy things for all of us.
AN: I believe you. There’s so much domesticity in your work.
EC: The everyday. I am a very homey person. That’s where I find everything. In home and in my parent’s home and a little bit when I shoot for magazines, in other people’s homes. I feel that in the microcosm of family, everything exists, all of our emotions and feelings.
AN: I loved that about your book because it’s about these eras within our lives and how we move through them and we embody these different roles. And embodiment means so much to me as someone who writes about death and dying, to see people at the end of their lives doing this measure of who they are, and what they are, and what it all means.
EC: What does it all mean, then?
AN: What do I think is the meaning of life?
EC: What do you feel from them at the end of their lives?
Oh, everything! Every emotion, so much regret, so much anger, so much love and concern and fear. Often great calmness. I think about this a lot. It’s changed me to do hospice work, to write about the dying. First of all, I think I make better decisions.
EC: Because you know that you can’t afford to lose time?
AN: Because the unimportant things are very much clearer now. When you see someone on their deathbed and they wish they hadn’t worked so much, they wish they hadn’t let those bad relationships fester, they wish they’d made peace with their estranged siblings, they wish they hadn’t cared so much about what people thought of them, they wish they had just tried the crazy things.
The hysterectomy did some of that to me. It did have some of those effects on me.
AN: Whenever we’re talking about life and the beginning of life and the making of life – motherhood, essentially – we’re talking about death. We’re talking about mortality, and that has very much been brought home to me in my work. The conversations that we have about elder care and death care parallel ideas about conception or the origin of life. The two always come together.
I saw my sister give birth to my nephew and I suddenly thought about my own life and time differently. It shocked me, the birth. It’s brutal and beautiful and emotionally profound: the shit, the pain, the blood, the gorgeous new life.
The smell. The smell!
AN: Very primal. Like a death.
Elinor Carucci was born in 1971 in Jerusalem. Her photographs are included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art New York, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Houston Museum of Fine Art and her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, Details and New York magazine. Carucci teaches at the graduate program of photography and related media at School of Visual Arts. A solo show of Carucci’s Midlife work will be held at Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York in May.
Ann Neumann is the author of The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America (Beacon, 2019), and a contributing nonfiction editor at Guernica magazine. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Virginia Quarterly Review, Harper’s magazine, the Baffler and elsewhere. She is currently working on a book about memory and adventure.