Bronx, New York
Summary of Elle Pérez
Born and raised in the Bronx, Elle Pérez (they/them) uses photography to document their gender non-conforming and racial minority communities. With formal discipline, their work is also known for its understated, yet eye-catching, visual composition. Although they follow in the tradition of queer artists who used photography to give visibility to their oppressed and invisible peers, their work has especially paved the way for the medium to engage with a more contemporary discourse in terms of gender identity today.
- Pérez’s work highlights trans identity, bodily autonomy, as well as modifications—subjects that few other photographers have picked up on until recently. Pérez proposes a progressive and open-ended view of gender that moves beyond identification and the binary. Instead, their art frames gender as a space of personal agency.
- Bringing to light scars, skin marks, and bruises from surgery, with the full cooperation of their subjects, Pérez’s work became known for its visceral quality. At the same time, Pérez doesn’t trade on shock value but exposes subjects in a humanizing light. The viewer’s initial flinch at some of the images and a tender embrace of the subjects that the images evoke combine to create a point of view unique to Pérez’s personal art.
- Beyond the body, Pérez has also tackled subjects such as the underground wrestling communities in the Bronx, as well as natural landscapes. What unites them is Pérez’s thinking on gender and identity that provides a base for complex and metaphorical visualization through themes such as performance and their notion of gender as surface.
Progression of Art
In this color photograph, the worn-out grey chest binder that Pérez uses to bind (and thus reduce the appearance of) their breasts hangs from a white clothes hanger from a shower rail, against the white background of the walls. The composition draws the viewer’s attention to the binder. The work marks a moment in Pérez’s career at which their work became more autobiographical or, as arts writer Jess Reytblat puts it, “near-diaristic examinations of their own lived experiences.”
Pérez showcases an undergarment, writes Caroline Goldstein, that holds significance within the trans masculine community. The visible discoloration, rips, and stains bear evidence of its daily use over a five-year period that suggests private acts of identity formation. Pérez explains: “the sweat and pain…all of it is visible in the fabric itself—and then in how it’s photographed with an extreme focus on precise details.” Arts writer Loring Knoblauch asserts that “Binder turns humble laundry hung on a hanger in the bathroom into an emphatic statement, the garment a poignant symbol of personal identity, not unlike a sweaty suit of chain mail armor.”
For artist Alec Coiro, the hanging garment “is both suggestive of the absent person but also evidence of the trace the wearer left on the fabric as well as the intimacy of finding it in this private space.” It is a powerful portrait of the wearer, despite their body’s absence. Larissa Pham writes: “[The binder] becomes a stand-in for not only the body but also its effect on the body: constriction, transformation, presentation. Paradoxically, it’s through this restrictive binding that gender fluidity can be performed.” “As viewers,” Pham notes, “we sense the body’s desire in this image, hovering like a ghost”—like the hung binder itself.
Inkjet print - Brooklyn Museum, New York City
In this vibrantly-colored photograph, Pérez captures their partner, Ian, naked except for a towel around his waist, standing in a dark bathroom doorway, lit by a single red bulb. Two thin, vertical bands of blue light land on Ian and the wall beside him, coming from an unknown source, while a light band cutting obliquely across the image renders visible Ian’s flat chest and scars from breast removal surgery. Ian holds the towel around his waist with his left arm, and leans against the doorframe with his right elbow, with the veins on his left hand prominent. He rests his head against his right hand and looks at the camera in a somewhat coy, suggestive manner. Loring Knoblauch notes that “the eye-to-eye interaction between Ian and the photographer (who is foggily reflected in the bathroom mirror) […] feels charged with something unspoken.”
Pérez’s subjects are often people they know intimately, leading to a unique power dynamic in their works that differs from the typical photographer-subject relationship. Artist Nan Collymore asserts that these portraits “are vivid and veracious, moments in the lives of those with whom Pérez is acquainted or becomes acquainted and, through that relationship, bares their soul.” The artist says about their images of Ian, “There are multiple negotiated layers of construction within every image after it is made, such as how he feels about the photograph, how I feel about it, whether or not it works simply as a photograph, and the different ways that power is negotiated. It’s definitely a collaborative process of constructing the image together because they wouldn’t exist without him.” The work captures a private moment that empowers the subject through the recognition of their agency and bodily autonomy in gender identity.
In this black and white photograph, a thin, young man with dark curly hair, a white t-shirt, and dark pants, lies on his back on a wrestling mat. Only the lower right leg and foot of his wrestling opponent is visible in the frame, as the foot pins the man down by his neck. The man has his eyes closed and his hands crossed over his chest, with his right hand resting on his opponent’s foot. As artist and writer Larissa Pham notes, “If one ignores the foot (and the figure to which it belongs), the subject seems nearly angelic—long eyelashes and tight curls standing out sharply in the photograph’s wide focus—and in peaceful repose. Yet the foot turns the composition toward violence and asks the viewer to consider the uses of pain.”
On the other hand, as Pham also observes, the way in which the wrestler’s hand fans across his opponent’s foot, almost in a supportive pose, indicates the collaborative nature of the wrestling performance, “a gesture shared between two actors.” Indeed, much of Pérez’s body of work documenting this scene centers upon the “meticulously choreographed” nature of the sport. With attention to formal details, “Pérez’s images of these wrestlers convey an exquisite balance of tenderness and violence,” writes Pham.
For Pérez, wrestling serves as a metaphor for the negotiation of, and experimentation with, identity. The wrestlers in the scene took on created personas, complete with fictionalized back stories. Says Pérez, "I think wrestling is important for people in my community who are denied certain types of identities and can’t be anyone they want in the ‘real’ world. You can be anyone you want in the ring.” They go on to note that their photographs “were very much about providing an additional layer of validation to a performed identity.” “Photography in that instance,” reflected the artist, “helped take the wrestler’s goal of performing their character’s identity convincingly to another level because it allowed for a different type of ‘reality’ – one that the photograph can construct – to be introduced.” While the popular imagination may associate wrestling with a theatrical display of power and virility, there is generosity in Pérez’s gaze, providing space for the self-fashioning of members of their own community.
Digital silver gelatin print
Dick presents a close-up of a naked body. We see sharp angles created by bent limbs. A forearm over the top left corner bears some small scars. A bloody hand with a V-shape cut covers the center of the image. Behind the hand, we deduce the presence of genitalia, based on the area’s positioning amidst the limbs, and the visibility of a thick patch of pubic hair behind the hand. The image’s meaning is open to interpretation. Possible associations that may come to the viewer’s mind include menstruation, castration, bodily modification and surgery, acts of self-harm, or BDSM pleasure reminiscent of the work of photographer Catherine Opie. The work is an example of what critics have come to recognize as Pérez’s signature: “unflinching images” that are at the same time intimately tender of their friends’ bodies.
Dick is intended to function with its photographic counterpart, titled Stone Bloom (2018), which, describes Jess Reytblat, presents “a weathered stone landscape as a stand-in for the body.” According to Pérez, “these two pictures kind of have this conversation or relationship between them that alludes to a way of depicting intimacy without a certain type of sexuality, without having to show two human figures doing things to each other in that sort of spectacular way.” Ambiguity is central to these images. Loring Knoblauch notes that “Pérez anchors the composition with a bloody hand gently hung between the legs, leaving the situation (and relationship) surrounding that blood stain mysteriously undefined.” Pérez explains that they intentionally leave these questions unresolved in this and other images, stating “I have decided to just breathe into these entanglements”.
Inkjet print - Museum of Modern Art, New York
Mae (Three Days After)
This color image, which was included in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, was taken three days after the subject, Mae, had undergone a number of cosmetic facial feminization, or gender confirmation surgeries, including the removal of the Adam’s apple, the lowering of the hairline, and excision of some tissue around the eyelids. Mae wears a dark, floral-printed head scarf, and uses both hands to pull it downward below the chin to reveal the incision scar on her neck. The inclusion of her loosely-hanging head scarf, as well as the light blue sweater she is wearing and the light blue background, may cause some viewers to associate the composition with images of the Virgin Mary in art history. While the Virgin Mary may be the quintessential embodiment of traditional femininity (with the related tropes of pain and suffering), Mae presents a contemporary take on gender identity and the post-surgical body.
Curator and arts writer Natasha Marie Llorens asserts that “It is clear from the stillness of the muscles in [Mae’s] face that she is in pain, yet her expression is liquid with a desire not only for recognition, but also for the pain of transformation that, as Pérez puts it, is ‘so different from shame that shame feels confusing to even consider.’” Commenting on the formal elements of the image, Loring Knoblauch writes that “Pérez has reduced each image to only what it needs to be and nothing more, peeling away distractions and superfluous visual information. Her pictures feel tightly wound and minutely calibrated.” It is this “compositional control,” however, she concludes, “that bottles the available tension so effectively. The result is a set of pictures that vibrate and sting, even when they are understated and tender.”
Inkjet print - Museum of Modern Art, New York
From Sun to Sun
For Pérez’s first public commission, supported by the Public Art Fund, the artist selected sixteen photographs to be installed in one hundred bus shelter advertising spaces around the city of New York. The project was intended as “a meditation on daily life through the exploration of places and communities in New York where Pérez grew up and lives” and sought to offer “the public a moment to engage with photography at larger-than-life scale.” The location inserts the art into the everyday life of bus riders, the images becoming “a part of the pulse of the city’s cycles and infrastructure.”
Many of the works featured local citizens (adults and children) devoted to improving education and health in their communities, such as this image of an educator and a child working together on a community garden. Said Pérez, “The people that I really wanted to highlight in this particular project were people who are part of the fabric of the city in a way that maybe doesn’t always get celebrated but requires a kind of daily showing up”. Other works in the series focused on “signs and languages of communication,” such as one image that depicts a sequence of hand gestures that make up a handshake well-known in the Bronx punk scene, while others focused on aspects of the urban landscape, such as cracks in the sidewalk and subway car interiors. Public Art Fund Assistant Curator Katerina Stathopoulou asserted that “Pérez observes the beauty of their surroundings and captures the humanity of these places, cumulatively revealing a kind of meditative self-portrait, [and which] creates a powerful synergy between familiarity and abstraction.”
Force (Fire Island)
Although known for their portrait photography, Pérez has also brought their sensibility and attention to form to the landscape genre, such as in this photograph shot on Fire Island showing an empty expanse of the ocean, the surface of the waves evoking skin creases. Beyond the horizon, we see only pitch-black darkness.
The work was shown as part of their solo exhibition, “Devotions,” at the Carnegie Museum of Art and Baltimore Museum of Art (2022-23). Several works depicted landscapes with particular attention to surfaces. Comments Pérez: “In Devotions, there was this moment where the surfaces went from being hard to being fluid. Like the surface of a rock versus the surface of the ocean. The ocean became a real point of consideration and contemplation, and then thinking about fluids as something that really just lent itself to a medium like photography that’s so iterative. Because these fluid surfaces can be so affected by light or affected by weather, affected by temperature, all these different conditions.”
Pérez’s commentary on the fluidity of surfaces may be understood in relation to their thinking about gender performance and queer identity. Indeed, the location of the photograph, Fire Island, holds a special cultural significance as a refuge for LGBT+ Americans since the early twentieth century. The work speaks to Pérez’s more contemporary outlook on gender, which transcends categories: “I think gender is just a way of reading surfaces. Gender as a sort of legend for how to read a surface. Depending on your perspective or your own reference points, you can see more or see less.” Such can be said also of this elegant photograph of a natural surface rendered abstract, allowing multiple readings and projections onto them.
Biography of Elle Pérez
Elle Pérez grew up in the Bronx, the same neighborhood where their parents had been born after their grandparents on both sides had emigrated from Puerto Rico. They have one sister. Pérez reflected that they “have a particular relationship to ambiguity due to the racial ambiguity of being Puerto Rican and my gender ambiguity,” which they experienced while growing up as a racial minority and identifying as gender non-conforming. They added, however, that “ambiguity and illegibility, in a broader sense, can be a space of progress, and learning.” Some of their later photographs would emphasize a subtle ambiguity over clear message or subject matter.
Pérez has only a basic grasp of Spanish, as their parents thought it more important for their children to speak English fluently and without an accent than to be fluent in Spanish. To this day, Pérez has “a lot of shame around not being fluent in Spanish.” However, they take pleasure in the way that, in Spanish, their name “becomes activated in a really funny way […] as something that would fuck with gender.” (Although “Elle” derives from the French word for “she,” in Spanish it sounds like “él,” the word for “he”/“him.”)
Pérez was raised Catholic and especially influenced by Italian Catholicism, as the neighborhood they grew up in was predominantly Italian and their parents attended Italian Catholic church. Pérez recalled: “There was always a very strict and conservative relationship to gender, religion, and roles and expectations. In Catholic school you would be explaining these transformations, and potentials and utopias, but there was also a constant component that had to do with shame.” Shame—and the possibility of embracing non-conforming identities despite of it—would become a subject of their work, including depictions of queer BDSM practices that, according to Pérez, relate to ways of transcending shame.
Education and Early Training
Pérez’s journey into photography began during their teenage years when they immersed themselves in the local punk community and started capturing the essence of its members through their lens. While in high school, they also took photography courses at the Education Alliance on New York City’s Lower East Side.
Reflecting on their introduction to photography, Pérez explains that it stemmed from an impulse to preserve and réate something meaningful for others. It all started when a friend who had moved away felt saddened by missing out on the punk scene in the Bronx. Pérez offered to fill that void by taking photographs and sending them to their friend. This was the start of their photographic journey. As time went on, this impulse grew into a broader desire to capture and celebrate the subcultures that were thriving within their community.
Initially, Pérez turned their lens towards the bands on stage. They quickly came to realize, however, that there was as much life, excitement, and diversity in the crowd itself. From then on Pérez’s focus shifted to capturing the crowd. Recalling their approach, Pérez said they would photograph audiences at events and promptly share the images online the following day. This practice sparked responses and interactions from the people in the photographs. Their photographic practice served as a nexus for connection and camaraderie within their punk community.
The role of photography as a mediator of social cohesion has been well documented in the history of photography and queer culture. Photographers who captured their alternative communities included Jack Smith, Peter Hujar, and Nan Goldin (the latter of whom Pérez acknowledged as an influence). In Pérez’s case, the community they documented was not only diverse sexually but also racially, reflecting the nature of the scene as they were growing up. (A distinction should be drawn between this punk scene and the punk/East Village scene of the 1980s, in which Goldin was active. Whereas their predecessors were often artists from all over the US, who converged in New York’s East Village to create their own alternative community, Pérez noted that the Bronx punk scene in the 2010s was home-grown: a community of local youths who strove to redefine themselves and break away from prevailing stereotypes whether in terms of gender or race.)
In 2011, Pérez received a BFA in Photography from Maryland Institute College of Art. She later went on to graduate school at Yale School of Art, earning an MFA in Photography in 2015. Pérez recalls that they “had a really hard time in graduate school, at points traumatic.” They explain: “Yale does what it does to people’s work—improves it so much—because it is so extremely difficult. You are asked to really hold up and examine yourself, your relationship to art, and the commitment you are making to this life. You get pushed. […] by critics, by your peers, by the symptoms of systems of power and oppression endemic to a university like Yale.” Nevertheless Pérez grew from the experience and viewed it as positive force on their art. Graduate school, they said, “really changed the fundamental nature of my relationship to photography,” propelling them to make work that reflected on their identity and heritage while tackling power and oppression in America.
In 2015, just after graduating from Yale, Pérez participated in a residency at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Madison, Maine. The residency proved fruitful for their creative trajectory. At Skowhegan, Pérez valued the opportunity to have artists like LaToya Ruby Frazier and Sarah Oppenheimer in their studio, “talking to me about my work in this transitional moment, giving guidance and giving me feedback — that was huge.” Pérez recalls that “One of the moments that was most influential was when Sarah Oppenheimer asked me what my engagement with the boundary of photography was, and what my relationship to convention was in photography with the work that I was making at the time. Those two questions took me about a month to really hear them.” Relatedly, during that time they were also teaching. To prepare for classes, Pérez had to dive deep into photography history and also, as with the questions posed by Oppenheimer, to reflect on how they would situate themselves as a contemporary photographer with their racial and gender background.
In 2016, Pérez was invited by Aperture to contribute a portfolio of work to the magazine’s “On Feminism” issue. Pérez submitted a series of photographs capturing the nightlife of LGBT+/punk youths in the Bronx and also in Baltimore. The work announced Pérez as an emerging voice in queer and contemporary photography, who especially contributed to the documentation of racialized queer and trans histories (both venues where Pérez had shot the photographs closed down in 2015). Pérez’s photographs offer a “counter-memory,” writes critic Salamishah Tillet, reminding us of the loss of queer of color safe spaces due to economic forces.
In 2018, Pérez had their first solo show, titled “In Bloom,” at 47 Canal Gallery in New York City. The photographs in the show depicted their friends’ bodies in an intimate and tender manner, including bodies undergoing gender transition and bodies healing after cuts and surgery. The show solidified Pérez’s reputation as a photographer who “could explore the contemporary body with raw intimacy,” notes Artsy. Pérez reflected on their own experience, which had inspired their work: “After seven years of binding [my chest], my ribs have formed a tighter cage around my heart, guided by a taut piece of fabric that has progressively constricted my back, lungs, my breathing, and my ability to walk up the stairs. All of this in pursuit of a new form, my body and this garment conspiring in a way that produces an emotion or a feeling, and makes my life at least manageable, if not alright.” “In Bloom” caught the eye of influential curator Klaus Biesenbach, who gave Pérez a career breakthrough with a solo show at MoMA PS1. This opportunity then led to their participation in the Whitney Biennale in 2019. That same year they were featured in both Cultured Magazine’s 30 Under 35 and Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 lists.
In addition to their novel and intimate subject matter, Pérez has also been praised for the formal aspects of their work. According to arts writer Alec Coiro, “What makes the richness of Pérez’s approach possible in every instance is their complete mastery of composition. … Pérez’s frame is composed with such apparent facility that they [are] left free to imbue their subject matter with a meaning in a way that few other photographers [are able to].”
Today, in addition to making work in New York, where they are based, Pérez also travels frequently to Puerto Rico to visit family, engage in artistic collaborations, and work with the grassroots community organization Casa Pueblo. They are a founding member of Junte, a local and international artist collective and visual art project based out of Adjuntas, Puerto Rico.
Pérez also maintains an active pedagogic practice, teaching at, among others, Harvard University, Rhode Island School of Design, and Yale School of Art. Says Pérez: “I love teaching because I love people. I love talking about art, and I love facilitating community, I love making things accessible to people. […] It’s something I hope to do for the rest of my life.”
The Legacy of Elle Pérez
While many other artists have also used photography to portray their subjects’ diverse identities, Pérez brings an especially sensitive and tender lens on their own communities. Arts writer Caroline Goldstein recognizes intimacy and love as the through-lines of Pérez’s entire oeuvre, writing that their work “often focuses on intimate moments of connection, such as two people bent over each other in an embrace, captured unawares.” Reflecting on Pérez’s work, scholar Elyse Ambrose writes of an “aesthetic intimacy” that gives the viewer a sense of closeness with the people shown (rather than positioning the viewer as a voyeur or observer). By doing so, writes Salamishah Tillet, Pérez “recenters all LGBT individuals as normative, everyday, and utterly beautiful.”
In contemporary art history, it has become common to see photography as a tool for exploring gender performance (the work of Cindy Sherman, for example, may come to mind). Pérez can be understood in this lineage but their work also captures a more capacious understanding of gender and gender identity spectrum, drawing from their own lived experience. Reflecting the change in cultural discourse, Pérez has noted how, to them, “gender has given way to thinking about autonomy. I think the word ‘gender’—maybe the privilege I have fought for, was in my own mind and in my studio, to kind of atomize that into another question about autonomy or agency or freedom, ability, a kind of visceral feeling or moment.” This privilege that Pérez fought for, to think and make work beyond gender as a binary construct but towards broader questions about bodily autonomy, constitutes another legacy that has helped open up new possibility for younger artists.