Blood is the first thing I see when I approach Elle Pérez’s photographs at the Whitney Biennial on a Wednesday morning at 11 am. In Pérez’s photograph Dahlia and David (fag with a scar that says dyke), 2019, crimson liquid pools in the shape of the letters D-Y-K-E, etched into the skin by a silver blade. Calling to mind Catherine Opie’s cutting self-portraits from the mid-1990s, Dahlia and David is an act of startling intimacy, and I am struck by the possibility of having something so important to say to the world that you will allow blood to be drawn to do it.
Dahlia and David is one of nine images by Pérez, who uses the pronouns they/them, on view in the Biennial (through September 22). Another, t, 2018, features a glass vial of testosterone, held delicately in a hand and caught in the light. Nearby, a 2019 portrait shows Mae, three days after her facial-feminization surgery, stitches on her forehead and neck, eyes bruised yellow and purple. Her vulnerability – her swollen eyes and the cuffs of the pale-blue sweater pulled down over her wrists – is made powerful in Pérez’s picture.
Startling intimacy is a phrase that often comes to mind when viewing Pérez’s work, which is regularly developed in collaboration with their subjects. Pérez does not consider their work to be a documentary project, and that speaks to the power of their image-making, which is part of an ongoing conversation. “Because my work had such a raw, vulnerable relationship to authenticity, people often would recommend that I go into documentary, but I could never figure out the ethics of it,” Pérez told Art21 earlier this year. Pérez describes the ethics of their collaborative image-making: they want their subjects to feel safe and fully seen; to feel an engagement with the work being made; and to have a stake in the images so that they’re not exploitative. Instead of othering their subjects, Pérez provides representation, hope, and motivation. There is intense power in seeing someone like yourself represented in images.
Pérez began making photographs growing up in New York City, a child of the Puerto Rican diaspora and a participant in the punk scene that developed in the basement of the First Lutheran Church of Throggs Neck in the Bronx. Pérez would say later that they started taking pictures of punk shows in high school, attended largely by black and Latinx youth, for posterity, to ensure their community was not left out of punk’s history. But this archival theme, a documentation of underground or underrepresented people and spaces, continued to develop in Pérez’s work, casting light on identities previously absent from modern photographic and historical narratives, presented through the eyes of a person who’s actually a member of the community.
Upon graduating from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in 2011, Pérez travelled around the U.S. seeking out those living outside of the gender binary, making portraits of people they had met online via Tumblr. This became the series Outliers, a title meant to acknowledge what Pérez calls “the spaces between genders.” Paradoxically, the project addressed the fluidity of gender and identity by capturing it in a single moment in time: “Photography as a medium is very bad at telling you the particular, shifting details of a three-dimensional human being that’s dynamic and lives in the world,” they said in their talk at Harvard Business School’s 2017 Gender & Work Symposium. “Photography is a fixed image, so when you talk about something like gender, which is generally pretty fluid…introducing something like photography becomes…kind of problematic.” But this contradiction informs Pérez’s image-making; they don’t seek to put a fixed narrative on any of their subjects. Their photographs capture who the person was in a moment, someone they may never be again; it’s as if they are creating an archive of selves, of lives preserved for the future.
Their 2015 project Counter-Archive documented these untold stories as well, with a focus on marginalized identities – queer, of color, or both. It featured images from Baltimore’s queer venue Club Hippo (now closed) and its Latin club night Euforia Latina; entertainment wrestling shows in the Bronx; and Puerto Rico’s fiestas patronales, the annual celebration of city or town saints. Pérez photographed in these venues in order to connect a once-disparate narrative of self, chronicling their communities in hopes of telling their own story. That same year they also earned their MFA in photography from Yale University.
Seven images from Counter-Archive are on view through December 8 in the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall. This follows their successful 2018 MoMA PS1 exhibition Diablo and their 47 Canal exhibition In Bloom the same year, both of which featured images deconstructing the public and private, and moments both intimate and mundane. Many of the images are stops on Pérez’s journey to make what they have called a queer photograph, a trans photograph, without textually naming it, like Binder, 2015, an image of Pérez’s own chest binder, worn, wrinkled, stained, and drying on a hanger in a bathroom shower. Most breathtaking is the image Dick, 2018, a hand coated in blood between bare legs, a heart shape near the wrist, an unapologetic ode to queer sexuality and perhaps even love.
“It was the type of work that really stopped me in my tracks when I saw the images,” said Public Art Fund assistant curator Katerina Stathopoulou, who approached Pérez to be the inaugural artist for the Public Art Fund’s collaboration with JCDecaux, the corporation known for its billboards and bus-stop advertising. “They were so striking and Elle’s intentional, intimate involvement with the subject matter they photograph really spoke to me.” Through November 24, Perez’s images are reproduced at 100 bus shelters across the city’s five boroughs.
Perez’s first public-art commission, from sun to sun accesses the multitudes of what it means to be a New Yorker. For Pérez, this includes the layered existence of the city’s inhabitants inside and outside of professional identities and personal narratives; their own roots in the Puerto Rican diaspora; and the textures of urban architecture, like the details of subway cars or graffiti. The images appear at 65 x 44 inches. “I thought [Pérez’s] images would be stunning at that scale,” Stathopoulou says. “Also, one element I thought was appealing is the fact that you can really approach bus shelters. You can walk right up to them and have that immediate, intense relationship.” This experience decentralizes the work from the art-world sphere and makes it directly accessible to the public, something Stathopoulou says was important to Pérez.
Standing in front of Pérez’s work at the Whitney, I was lost in the intimacy of the photographs; of Wilding and Charles bound in each other’s arms, top surgery scars and tattoos naked to the lens; of Jane flexing for the camera; of José Gabriel floating, eyes defiant. These images no longer belong to the photographer alone; they activate emotions and reactions in viewers – those visiting the Whitney or those who encounter Pérez’s photographs throughout the city this fall, wandering or waiting for a bus.