“I used to have a theory about photographing. It was a sense of getting in between two actions, or in between action and repose,” said Diane Arbus in 1971. This sentiment finds vivid embodiment in the subtle yet impactful artistry of Elle Pérez (b. 1989), a photographer born in the Bronx with Puerto Rican roots. The artist has garnered recognition for their work that captures the intimacy shared among friends and partners. Equally significant is the closeness between photographer and subject, a bond that Pérez, like contemporaries Clifford Prince King (b. 1993) and La Toya Ruby Frazier (b. 1982), portrays effortlessly.
The artist’s latest exhibition, Intimacies, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), expands on a work titled Devotion, previously shown at the Carnegie Museum (2021) and the Baltimore Museum of Art (2022). It also features photographs Pérez made for the 2022 Venice Biennale and includes 27 pictures made between 2018 and 2023, in addition to the video installation Wednesday, Friday (2022). The collection relies on a proximity to people and place, expressed through portraits of Perez’s partner, their queer and trans friends, fellows artists, the boxers they train with at the gym and the landscapes of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Fire Island, Louisiana and Puerto Rico.
Early on in their career, Pérez captured the essence of underground queer punk clubs within their Bronx community. Focused on their own social circle, they immortalised the emotions, conflicts and connections that unfolded in Black, Brown and queer spaces. Pérez would then share images online and respond to their friends’ feedback on how they did – or did not – want to be represented. This candid interaction between creator and audience became the foundation of the artist’s collaborative philosophy, imbuing their creations with a distinctive sensitivity. In Tomashi and Ally II (2019), two figures embrace, nuzzling, as they find strength and comfort in their pairing. Pérez describes each figure as “taking on the weight of the gaze…while allowing the other to rest.” Elsewhere, in Slip Curve (2023), two rocks press together. The position parallels Tomashi and Ally II perfectly; the photographs echo a mutual and utterly resolute dependency, where both face and rockface bear the total weight of each other.
Fluidity and connection are central themes within the artist’s practice, which explores the thresholds and intersections of surface and depth, control and submission, one body and another. Swathes of light fall onto smudged windows and outstretched fingers, bathing subjects in a decadent white glow. A feeling of vulnerability hangs over images, evoking a frailty and mortality reminiscent of Paddy Summerfield, or Dewi Lewis’ latest release Pictures From the Garden. These are worlds that seep open, that possess a startling transparency – even in the shadows. Elsewhere, landscapes feature prominently, functioning as a partner in the relationship between humans and the natural world. Pérez creates according to tidal states, working her way between cycles and perpetual states of transformation.
Repeated images of water and liquid evoke the waves that drive us. The artist explains in an interview to Brooklyn Rail, “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 […] that really just lent itself to a medium like photography that is so iterative.” The potential for water as a destructive force is also expressed in images of flooding in Puerto Rico. Depending on which way a viewer enters the exhibition, the show begins or ends with the video Wednesday, Friday (2022), which Pérez filmed on two different trips to Puerto Rico the year after Hurricane Maria hit the island, capturing the complexities of the everyday experience.
Intimacies joins a whole host of other galleries in its focus on relationships, such as Yancey Richardson’s Survey of Parenthood and International Centre for Photography’s exhibition, Love Songs, inspired by the journeys of romantic relationships. In this exhibition, Pérez unveils a profound connection with the subjects they convey. Their photography stands as a modern testament to the power of visual storytelling, as they reveal the depth and importance of human emotion and identity.
Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art | Until June 2024
Words: Chloe Elliott
1. Elle Pérez, Tomashi and Ally II (2019).
2. Elle Pérez, Bodega (New York) (2020).
3. Elle Pérez, Pull (2020).
4. Elle Pérez, Mae at Riis Beach (2020-2021). Image courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal.
5. Elle Pérez, Ascension (Fire Island) (2019).
6. Elle Pérez, Slip Curve (2021).