Elle Pérez

In the Bronx, New Haven, and Baltimore, nightclubs are spaces of queer liberation.

By Salamishah Tillet

Elle Pérez, Karila, 2015Courtesy the artist

Elle Pérez, Karila, 2015
Courtesy the artist

Euforia Latina. Bronx Underground. Autonomous queer spaces now disappeared from the American urban landscape. Rather than have them live on as remnants in the minds of those who found haven there, Elle Pérez insists on their presence. Her photographs are a form of counter-memory, a practice that philosopher Michel Foucault describes as actively reviving the past to resist historical obscurity and narrative death.

Pérez was born the year before Jennie Livingston released Paris Is Burning, a 1990 documentary initially heralded for its provocative characters and its unprecedented exposure of New York’s queer, black, and Latino ballroom culture to mainstream America. In retrospect, what was seen as the film’s innovation can now seem to be racial and class exploitation: Livingston neither turns the camera back onto herself nor turns it over to the stars. “As a twenty-two-year-old from the Bronx watching Paris Is Burning for the first time, it was like falling in love with yourself through a white gaze,” Pérez told me. “That’s what I am fighting against in my work.”

Elle Pérez, Curtain Peel, 2014Courtesy the artist

Elle Pérez, Curtain Peek, 2014
Courtesy the artist

And yet, Pérez’s photographs are more empathetic than embattled. Her close-up shots, a few staged, mostly improvised, capture the offscreen rather than the nightclub’s main attraction. Those moments before the moment. A stairwell before going in or leaving the party. Backstage pageant prep. Peering from behind the curtain. A Selina catsuit hanging midair. A slow inhale. A tight embrace.

That her photographs are from different places might matter for the official record. Some are taken at Euforia Latina, the Latin club night held at Baltimore’s popular Club Hippo, which first opened in 1972. Others are from the Bronx Underground, a punk show hosted at the First Lutheran Church of Throgs Neck, in the Bronx, for fourteen years. Both places permanently closed their doors in 2015, shortly after Pérez captured them for posterity. “In the beginning, I thought I was photographing for the future,” Pérez said. “Because these people would have been left out of the history of punk.”

That her photographs refuse their geographical specificity is the point. These images flatten space, giving us a sense that we are watching both the entertainers and their spectators in media res and waiting for each other. Even more poignantly, Pérez’s black-and-white portraits dislodge these scenes from their respective years of 2014 and 2015 and situate the viewer fully in the present or transport us back to the neopunk scene of the early 2000s or to the roaring Harlem ballrooms of the 1980s. Here, we are all part of an intimate experiment in out-of-timeness in which space and temporality are deconstructed, each moment rendered eternally new.

Elle Pérez, Kirsten, 2015Courtesy the artist

Elle Pérez, Kirsten, 2015
Courtesy the artist

Pérez’s counterarchive then becomes an alternative to erasure. Taken together, these photographs create their own imagined community, to use the phrase coined by historian Benedict Anderson, in which people are joined by shared experiences or collective memories rather than by the more traditional borders of the nation-state. Unlike the racial and sexual othering in Paris Is Burning, Pérez, working in settings of emotional familiarity, takes her subjects, their queerness, and their blackness and brownness for granted. By doing so, she recenters all LGBT individuals as normative, everyday, and utterly beautiful.

Amid the euphoria and exaltation there is now a stinging sadness as we juxtapose Pérez’s images against the backdrop of those brutally murdered on Latin Night at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub this past June. And while Pulse’s owner defiantly vows to keep its doors open, Pérez’s photographs are their own form of memory-justice, ones that we need now more than ever.

Salamishah Tillet is an associate professor of English and Africana Studies and a faculty member in the Alice Paul Center for Research on Gender, Sexuality, and Women at the University of Pennsylvania.

Read more from Aperture Issue 225, “On Feminism,” or subscribe to Aperture and never miss an issue.

Aperture 225

Aperture 225

Aperture: The Magazine of Photography and Ideas “On Feminism” The winter issue of Aperture, “On Feminism,” arrives at a moment when the power and influence women hold on the world stage is irrefutable, and the very idea of gender is central to conversations about equality across the country, and around the globe. “On Feminism” focuses on intergenerational dialogues, debates, and strategies of feminism in photography and considers the immense contributions by artists whose work articulates or interrogates representations of women in media and society. Across more than one hundred years of photographs and images, “On Feminism” underscores how photography has shaped feminism as much as how feminism has shaped photography. FRONT Redux Brian Wallis on Leonard Freed’s Black in White America, 1968 Spotlight Eli Durst’s In Asmara by Alexandra Pechman Curriculum By Martha Rosler Dispatches Maria Nicolacopoulou on Athens BACK Object Lessons Les Femmes de l’Avenir, 1900–1902 WORDS On Feminism Contributions by Catherine Morris, Zanele Muholi, Laurie Simmons, Johanna Fateman, Zackary Drucker, and A. L. Steiner Modern Women: David Campany in Conversation with Marta Gili, Julie Jones, and Roxana Marcoci The artists who redefined the course of twentieth-century photography The Feminist Avant-Garde In self-portraiture and body art, experimental pioneers of the 1970s By Nancy Princenthal Sex Wars Revisited Lesbian erotica as critical rebellion By Laura Guy A Taste of Power: Renée Cox in Conversation with Uri McMillan From Angela Davis to Beyoncé, the icons and avatars of black style History Is Ours The legacy of protest in video and performance By Eva Díaz On Defiance How women have resisted representational photography By Eva Respini Beyond Binary New visions of trans feminism By Julia Bryan-Wilson Our Bodies, Online Feminist images in the age of Instagram By Carmen Winant PICTURES Cosey Fanni Tutti Introduction by Alison M. Gingeras Gillian Wearing Introduction by Jennifer Blessing Yurie Nagashima Introduction by Lesley A. Martin Hannah Starkey Introduction by Sara Knelman Katharina Gaenssler Introduction by Yvonne Bialek Josephine Pryde Introduction by Alex Klein Laia Abril Introduction by Karen Archey Farah Al Qasimi Introduction by Kaelen Wilson-Goldie Martine Syms Introduction by Amanda Hunt Elle Pérez Introduction by Salamishah Tillet

Sign up for Aperture's weekly newsletter: