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Antonio Perricone Self Portrait
Antonio Self PortraitPhotography Antonio Perricone

Activist Adam Eli speaks to photographer Antonio Perricone about queerness

As the emerging photographer hosts his first solo exhibition, trailblazing LGBTQ+ activist Eli talks to Perricone about his inspirations and how to authentically document a community

He cut his teeth interning for both legendary British photographer Tim Walker and trailblazing LGBTQ+ activist and Dazed 100’er Adam Eli, now 22-year-old multi-tasker Antonio Perricone is showing his own work in an upcoming solo show: Portraits. Voices4 founder and mentor Adam Eli sat down with Perricone ahead of his exhibition to talk queer inspiration, authenticity, and what he’s learnt.

I first met Antonio through Skype when he interviewed me for his college magazine. In the year since that first meeting, I’ve gotten to know him as a colleague and friend, watching him navigate New York as he assisted me at LGBTQIAA+ advocacy group Voices4. A writer and photographer in his own right, on days off, Antonio would head to the parks, hanging out with the other queer kids and taking their pictures. From skaters in the East Village to model and activist Jovel Ramos on their roof in Brooklyn, the work he’s produced is intimate, gently capturing young New Yorkers amidst a historic and chaotic summer in the wake of Stonewall50. 

The poster image for the show, featuring Bronx-born designer Bambi Latham, caught Antonio’s mentor Tim Walker’s imagination too: “That picture of the kid in the emerald green headscarf, lounging on the grass and gazing directly into the camera’s viewfinder, it reminds me of something. It’s got that same hold that Tilda Swinton gives to Sally Potter in Orlando, sitting under the oak tree and breaking the fourth wall. Perricone and Bambi, Potter and Swinton. They have the ability to be both timeless and in the here and now, simultaneously.”

With just a few days until opening night, Antonio gives us an exclusive look at pictures from the upcoming show and speaks to me about influences, heartbreak, and the queer city that inspired it all.

“People just living their lives and doing whatever they can to make it – that inspired me. There’s a sense that anything could happen in (New York City) that I don’t really get in other places I’ve been to” – Antonio Perricone

So this is your first show! How exciting – what made you want to do it? Shouldn’t you be working on your dissertation! 

Antonio Perricone: Thank you! And I am! Promise. This has been a way to do something outside of studying though. After spending the summer meeting so many people and hearing so many stories in New York, I wanted to bring it all together with a show. I felt really far away from home at the time, and it was making this project that took my mind off that... let me get outside my head. I loved hearing from Bambi about walking the ballrooms and what she dreams of doing as a designer, or from these skaters who admitted that they literally commute across the boroughs just to show off their stuff in Tompkins Square Park. People just living their lives and doing whatever they can to make it – that inspired me. There’s a sense that anything could happen in the city that I don’t really get in other places I’ve been to. And I guess meeting a community that was open enough to share that with me made me want to share it forward with this show. 

What’s it like, as a queer British person, landing yourself among the queer community in New York? What similarities did you find across the pond?

Antonio Perricone: It’s crazy. It’s different and really good. People are so energised and it’s contagious. Queer New York is what this whole show really rests on. People exploring their identities, comfortable in themselves and lying somewhere outside of preset notions of ‘she’ or ‘he’. Scouting people in the city through Instagram and Tinder, a modern kind of sexuality and socialising came into it too. I got to meet people who’ve already made their preferences clear and we just got to become friends in a few hours. It’s amazing how hard-working everyone is, constantly hustling and working on themselves, their brand, their career… manifesting. It’s sick. That said, I think being English means you’re naturally quieter, or at least I felt like that, so I tried to kind of bring that calmness to the images. I think queerness is somehow more laid back in the UK.

So much of queer photography, especially in New York City, is focused around sex and the body. I love that these photos, which to me, read as queer, lack overt sexual overtones and don’t necessarily rely on sexuality or the body to express queerness. Was that intentional?

Antonio Perricone: I love this question so, so, so much. Yes. That actually was intentional. I think so much of what flies at the moment in queer art, especially within the algorithm, is this dominating, all-white, super skinny or muscled aesthetic that seems to erase so much of the nuance of sexuality and identity and also just (reduces) queer culture (to) one thing. I don’t see straight artists feeling the need to shoot thirst traps in their underwear to prove their sexuality and I’m not sure why queer art falls into that same place so often. Don’t get me wrong, I think expressing yourself and your body is cool and I back it and I like looking at it too, I just feel uncertain about that being the only way of expressing queerness. Who and what gets erased when that’s the only thing we focus on? Surely there’s more to it than the body. That constant linking of queerness and heavily idealised bodies is already so tied into the damaging culture that makes queer people feel bad about their bodies. There are more interesting subjects out there.

How and why did you start taking pictures?

Antonio Perricone: I’ve been shooting since I was a kid. I properly got into it when I was around 14. I’d shoot my friends in the fields and streets in the quiet town where we lived, just to fill the time, listening to Lorde, and imagining we were in a teen movie. At school, my art teachers were encouraging but instilled a healthy criticism in me. I’d think what I’d done was so great and I’d rush to show it to them, and they’d make it clear when they thought it wasn’t… that stuck. I’m still shooting now because I just want to get better at it. I’ve never felt satisfied. After each shoot, I’m thinking about the next one, how I can improve? The recent shoot I did with Jovel kind of embodies that. We’d shot together two years ago when we were both 19 and both way less sure of ourselves. Meeting up again this summer, it was like we had a chance to revisit and revise. Jovel with their image and their gender identity. Me with my style and process. It was a collaboration that didn’t just settle on what we’d done before but pushed it further. 

How does your queerness affect your work?

Antonio Perricone: I think being queer gives you a really specific sense of empathy that you might not have otherwise. It makes you feel vulnerable really early on in life, and without that uncertainty, I guess I might not have been so interested in analysing other people, observing them, photographing them. Taking pictures is both an act of documentation and creation, and when you feel like you don’t necessarily fit into like ‘heterosexuality’ or ‘masculinity’, creating your own world of characters, attractions, aesthetics… it’s a reclamation somehow. I remember in my teens, the anxiety of really not fitting into the classic maleness and straightness that seems so prescribed to young boys. Taking pictures is a symptom of that – feeling at the edge of what’s normal – it’s like hiding behind the lens as you figure out all the world in front of you, and figure out yourself. Boys, girls, figuring how you relate to them, what you’re attracted to emotionally, visually, sexually. 

You touched earlier on the loneliness you felt being so far away from home. I know you went through a big break-up right before you came out to NYC. Did that affect your time here? How did it affect your pictures and projects?

Antonio Perricone: The big heartbreak question! I guess being in New York was good timing. What I got the most from it all was this huge sense of relief and distance… like the most extravagant form of therapy. I got to just disappear off the grid for a while and be anonymous in this big city which was freeing. No matter how shitty I was feeling I’d see a rat on the subway or something really gross in the street and would just have to laugh. The pictures we took and the projects I worked on – it all just helped me find somewhere to focus my mind. You can’t really be thinking too sadly if you’re going out and meeting people and making stuff. It was fun... like I was navigating the world on my own for the first time. A little sad and lot lighter all at once. I think the pictures reflect something of that.

How does sharing your work online affect how you take pictures?

Antonio Perricone: I’m aware there’s so much conversation right now about what it means to be honest or authentic online. I read that Tavi Gevinson piece about Instagram and got way too deep into the Caroline Calloway drama so I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I share my work primarily on Instagram, and though it’s not necessarily inauthentic, there’s obviously something planned and contrived in the way any artwork has to be to get done. Like you have to think of taking a picture before you take it, and that requires some kind of subtle ‘curation’. I hate that word. There’s a tension between creating something aesthetically pleasing and remaining authentic to the subject. What I can’t ‘curate’ in a photograph is the person themselves. They bring so much to it, everything really, and being in front of the camera can be so vulnerability inducing - the best photos happen when people open up to that - give themselves to it. 

You worked for me at Voices4 this summer. What was that like – if you don’t mind me asking?

Antonio Perricone: Amazing! (laughs) but seriously… I learnt a lot. I got to see you and the brilliant people you work with making concrete steps to address issues you care about. It just made me reflect on myself and what I want to contribute to the world. I know I want to make stuff, and no matter the medium, I’m really struck by the notion that while creating is cool in itself, it’s even cooler if you can find a story to tell or a cause to champion with what you do. The importance of using your skills to help others. When I got to transcribe that piece for a Polish teenager who’d been persecuted attending their first pride march, that was so humbling.

You’ve also been working for Tim Walker this summer right? How has that been?

Antonio Perricone: Immense. Tim and his whole team are unreal. They were so welcoming and what Tim does is like magic. I feel like I was in art school – just scurrying around in the background, doing odd jobs, and looking at his incredible photos every day. I’d listen to people in the studio have these rich conversations about photography, what makes good work, what makes people tick. It made me want to go out, do more, be more curious.

New York has a long history of queer photography. What and who inspired you or didn’t? 

Antonio Perricone: All summer I felt like we were living in such a moment. With Stonewall50 and the Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibition at The Met, I just had this sense that I was in a specific place and time with such a rich queerness at the fore. I read Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from The Dance while staying on the Lower East Side and would get on the bus uptown and imagine how many queer people had walked the same streets, taken the same route across the city. Photographing Bambi I was thinking of Pose and the ballrooms, shooting Matthew and Loren on the beach in Williamsburg or Jovel in Bed-Stuy I know Peter Hujar was at the back of my mind. The skater pictures gave me echoes of David Armstrong and Vivian Maier. One thing that weirdly fell out of favour for me was Robert Mapplethorpe. He was my real introduction to queer art as a kid, but then I saw his show at the Guggenheim. They contextualised how fetishistic he is, especially with black bodies, and it dimmed his shine for me. I’m not sure he’s worth the hype anymore. Now I’m just into everything; filmmakers, artists, photographers. A shot in a movie or an expression in a painting can just trigger a mood in my head, send me in a different direction. Right this minute, I’m really into Chris Smith. I love the drama of what he does. How queer it is. How’s it’s only on Instagram. He’s just so cool.

Did Princess Diana inspire any of this work, in any shape or form?

Antonio Perricone: (Laughs) This wouldn’t be an Adam interview without that question… I am definitely into 90s pictures of Diana leaving the gym that get reposted on Instagram all the time, but I’m not sure I can make a connection. We’ve talked before about her use of the media to focus attention on causes she cares about, which is a link I guess. Funnily enough, apparently her psychic used to live opposite us when I was a kid. I was born like two weeks after she died and my mum used to joke that I was her soul reincarnate as a toddler. Looking back, I’m not sure how funny that is...

Do you identify as Gen Z? What does that mean to you?

Antonio Perricone: Yes, I think so. I’m always slightly unsure of what it means, and I get scared when I realise my little sister and all her mates only talk via Snapchat and Instagram now. But I guess that distance means I must be Gen-Z. For people my age, I think issues like LGBTQ+ rights are almost second nature. Not that we are complacent, but I think we have a strong sense of how normal and expected those freedoms are and it’s why we’re vocal about them being protected. We’re fluid by nature. Identity isn’t this fixed thing. Being Gen-Z means there’s so much opportunity to be yourself and we’ll only ever work to ensure that everywhere else. Gen-Z has found a balance of looking like they don’t give a fuck while really giving a fuck. I think we care.

Follow Antonio on Instagram to see more. Portraits runs from 7pm on 22 November 2019 at Exeter College, Oxford

Words by Adam Eli @adameli