Interview with Lissa Rivera that talks about femininity and private experiences

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Lissa Rivera is a photographer and curator based in Brooklyn, NY whose work has received multiple grants and honors and been exhibited internationally. Rivera received her MFA from the School of Visual Arts, where she became fascinated with the social history of photography and the evolution of identity, sexuality and gender in relationship to material culture. ‘Beautiful Boy,’ Rivera’s latest project, takes her interest in photography’s connection with identity to a personal level, focusing on her domestic partner as muse.

Selected press includes The New York Times, Artforum, The Guardian, Harper’s Bazaar, Forbes, PAPER and I-D Magazine among many others. Selected honors include the Magnum Photography Award for Portraiture; Feature Shoot’s Emerging Photography Award; D&AD’s Next Photographer Shortlist; and “Woman to Watch” at the National Museum of Women in Arts. Permanent collections include Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Danforth Museum; and the Newport Art Museum.

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About ‘Beautiful Boy‘:

Hi Lissa, please introduce us to Beautiful Boy.

‘Beautiful Boy’ is an ongoing series of photographs of my lover, who is genderqueer. It began as a confession between friends. On the subway one evening, my friend shared that he had worn women’s clothing almost exclusively in college, but after graduation struggled to navigate a world that seemed both newly accepting and yet inherently reviling of male displays of femininity. I thought that photography could provide a space for him to experiment with his identity outside of isolation.

Taking the first pictures was an emotional experience. I connected with my friend’s vulnerability. I wanted to make sure that the images were not a compromise for either of us, and we engaged in many discussions. Both of us have long, fraught relationships with femininity that have fundamentally shaped who we are. Our desires were matched. They had the desire to see themselves and I felt driven to capture their exploration. A part of my own identity that had defied expression also began to emerge. He became my romantic partner and collaborator.

I wanted to make images without shame, to show his femininity as strength. I wanted to feel empowered as well, to have an intimate muse. When taking the photos I felt the same as when viewing a film where a director and actress share a deep connection to the fantasy captured. Although our emotional relationship is private and real, we perform a romanticism that is obsessive and decadent. We connect to images, films and records of women that we idolize and consume together. The fantasy of dressing up transforms the act of being photographed into one that fuses identity creation with image creation. The camera transposes our private experiences into public expression.

How do you hope the readers will react to Beautiful Boy, ideally?

I am not looking for any specific reaction. Color is very important to me, as well as archetypal narratives. It is my hope that the work will draw people in and then act as a mirror in which viewers can draw their own insights and connections.

Did you have any specific references or sources of inspiration in mind while working on Beautiful Boy?

The work is very much about the history of the reproduced image and the power of photography to change culture and affect perceptions of social expectations. I am interested in the ideals of many different eras and often combine references to several time periods in one image. For instance, my photograph “Motel, Virginia” combines traces of 19th-century Postmortem photography, an Edward Steichen photo of the tragic 1940s film star Frances Farmer, Alfred Hitchcock hotel scenes, and Sissy Spacek in Terrence Malick’s 1973 film “Badlands.” I was attracted to the idea of the hotel in cinema history—particularly the idea of a woman alone in a hotel or on the road—and the implication of danger or even foreboding death for young women who leave the domestic realm.

What is the most profound reason that led you to photograph a man in the role of a woman?

That’s not really what I’m doing. BJ is and isn’t a man—but also, I am not photographing him in the role of a woman so much as we, together, are exploring the visual language of femininity as it relates to the body—the ways that signs and symbols of gender are embedded in fabrics, in spaces, in accessories and makeup, and how these signs relate to our bodies but also our consciousness.

One of the most interesting reactions to the work is that by not having a cis-gendered woman as a muse, the integral role of the muse in art history is revealed. For most of art history, men have been very dependent on women as subjects. To perform the role of the subject is not an easy task —it requires vulnerability, presence, collaboration, and a great deal of time and support.

What’s your favorite drink?

Iced coffee!

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Time to read
6 min
Words by
Published on
13 July 2018
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