In Conversation with Elle Pérez

Fearless Bodies and Identities in Elle Pérez’ Photography

Elle Pérez’ photographs are striking and mysterious, depicting people and places from very different worlds. The photographer from the Bronx, New York, talked with Nan Collymore for Contemporary And (C&) América Latina about the gaze of love, the fragmentation of the body, and identity in their photographs.

Right now Im working on a couple of new images, from this past weekend. There’s something about the way the tight frame works with the figure that is familiar, like the pictures of my partner, Ian, who I collaboratively photograph, and also with close friends. They become very familiar over time. I made a picture of Ian that I havent shown: theres an arc that has a circular composition to it and then part of the circle completes outside of the frame; and because of the way that I travel around it, it circles out and around in a way that I find dynamic and I havent made a picture like that before. I find it really fun to do that, to figure out the different ways to image different parts of the body.

C&AL: Could you say more about the fragmentation of the body in your still and video work?

EP: I think it comes from the way that you look at someone you love. At first, when theyre new to you, and then how you look at them when youve known them for a long time. Theres something about plainly seeing someone initially and then, after you get to know them for a while, they become almost like a hologram, you interact with them, you get these threads, you dont necessarily see them as they truly are, unless you havent seen them for a while. This happens to me mostly with my parents. So every four or six months, when I see them again, I am able to really look at them. In the beginning of the day I can see how theyve aged but by the end of the day Im back to knowing them as familiar faces. Photography can really facilitate that idea of plainly seeing because of how concerned it can be with precise detail.

C&AL: The images are so private, with Ian’s nipple it’s anatomical, historical and gendered so; maybe a nipple is never just a nipple.

EP: I just finished reading King Leopolds Ghost by Adam Hochschild, about the atrocities committed in the Congo Free State by Belgiums king. It was interesting to me how photography, specifically of terrorized people and their mutilated bodies, was utilized by those fighting against the atrocities, and how others used photographs of the lush landscape and orderly portraits to create pro-imperial propaganda. And Im thinking about how much imagery of bodies has been made for the purpose of subjugating people. That historys relationship to contemporary imagery is what I strive toward, being wholly aware of and in some kind in control of my work.

Thinking again about my partner’s nipple and where it lives in a broader history of images, I remember seeing the Harvey Cushing Brain Tumor Registry while I was at Yale. The registry contains between ten thousand and fifteen thousand photo negatives of brain-tumor patients before and after surgery. And they are absolutely astonishing, vulnerable portraits. The images are so aesthetically beautiful and have an unsettling tension because you know that theyre being made for the pseudo-scientific purpose of documenting deformity. So when I make this image of my partners beloved nipple, which represents for him a claiming of himself, I also personally desire to have the same marks for myself one day as a result of my own top-surgery, I am interested in how it troubles and flirts with that complicated history of imaging.

C&AL: How do you examine your own identity in your work?

A lot of media narrative about the hurricane in Puerto Rico was about getting relief in as soon as possible. It was a strategic use of a certain type of narrative. Its like what Gayatri Spivak says about “strategic essentialism” and how sometimes it is politically useful to lean into essential myths to accomplish something purely for the sense of accomplishment, not to use it as a truth, but to help achieve something. Puerto Rican citizenship is problematic and raises compacted feelings about what citizenship is.

There’s an endless oscillation between these identities, theyre the same today and I dont know what Ill be in three years time. Ive become very fond of the and instead of the or. That space is how identity is born and a way to remain expansive and, simultaneously, acknowledge there are some facts about my experience in the world and I don’t want to act as if they dont exist, because they do.

Elle Pérez is an artist from the Bronx, New York, who teaches photography at Harvard University and is Dean at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Pérez’ work will appear at PS1 MoMA until September 3, 2018.

Nan Collymore is a British writer and artist, based in California