Lissa Rivera is a photographer and curator based in Brooklyn. Rivera received her MFA from the School of Visual Arts (2009), 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, The Guardian, Harper’s Bazaar, Forbes, Creators, I-D Magazine, and The Boston Globe among many others. Rivera was chosen as a “Woman to Watch” for the biennial exhibition at the National Museum of Woman in Arts. Selected honors include the Griffin Museum’s Peter Urban Legacy Award; Feature Shoot’s Emerging Photography Award; Photographic Resource Center Exposure, 2016; Danforth Museum Purchase Prize; Filter Photo Festival’s People’s Choice Award; the D&AD Next Photographer Shortlist, 2017; and the Magnum Photography Award for Portraiture, 2017. Rivera is represented by ClampArt, New York. In addition to her art practice, Rivera is Associate Curator at the Museum of Sex, New York.
PROJECT SPOTLIGHT: Beautiful Boy
2013 – ongoing
‘Beautiful Boy’ is an ongoing series of photographs of my lover. 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 to experiment outside of isolation. Taking the first pictures was an emotional experience, and I connected to his vulnerability. Over time he became my muse and eventually my romantic partner. Soon we began taking photos like addicts, setting up several shoots every weekend.
When taking the photos, I feel the same as when viewing a film where a director and actress share a deep connection to the fantasy captured. It is thrilling to see my partner transform into countless goddess-like forms. The project is a canvas to project our desires. At times the images even become self-portraits. The camera transposes our private experiences into public expression.
Often, I construct sets in my studio. Other times, I seek out locations that feel as if they are sets. I spend a lot of time conceptualizing the costumes, which I piece together from thrift shops, Ebay, and discount fabric outlets. I think it is important that the images not be seamless, but more like an assemblage where you can see the glue, revealing contemporary identity as a collage of the visual language of the past. Although I art-direct the images and come to each shoot with a strong aesthetic intention, my partner inhabits each costume and set in a thoughtful way, embodying the scenario with a sense of openness.
It is important to show his femininity as strength. I want to feel empowered as well, and to have an intimate muse. Together we investigate feminine fantasies presented throughout the history of photography and cinema. The project is a way to ‘step-inside’ images that we have found alluring and examine what it is like to live each scenario out. We explore both our captivation and our ambivalence towards these depictions of femininity. By presenting my partner within the lineage of great beauties and populating the media with our images, we are reclaiming our voice in what is attractive and beautiful.
When and where did Beautiful Boy begin?
‘Beautiful Boy’ began as a way to help my friend BJ explore his relationship to femininity. It became a way to grapple with my own struggles and desires relating to gender as well. The most notable experience by far was falling in love at the same time we created the work and finding a way to have a creative, expressive, and emotionally fulfilling relationship outside of the constraints of traditional heteronormative expectations.
Artistically, it was important to us to build a world together where we could explore the ways photographic technologies have affected the construction of identity in an experiential way. ‘Beautiful Boy’ became a tool to explore the ways powerful images can change culture for better or worse. I wanted to learn the visual techniques of advertising photography to repurpose them in a way that exposes their cultural impact and at the same time presents gender-fluidity as beautiful.
I began photographing BJ in a little nook in my kitchen. It was the only space available—I had to drag the tables and chairs and other furniture out of the room each time. At the time, I had little money, and no resources to purchase lights or other costly equipment. Instead we explored the beauty of the natural light from this single window. We used discount fabrics and borrowed dresses. As the project has gained success, I have poured every penny back into the work—purchasing costumes and traveling in order to make images on location.
Where do you see this project going?
We work in a way that is most similar to cinema. Directors such as Fellini, Cassavetes, or Bergman collaborated with their wives to explore many different stories and investigations of human emotion. Our shoots are often planned out like short films.
‘Beautiful Boy’ has been exhibited worldwide and throughout the United States. The images have been on billboards and on the front page of major publications. It is my hope that this work helps break down the patriarchal privilege of looking, making it ok for all genders to experience the freedom of expressing both masculinity and femininity.
What helps you sustain your current creative practice?
It is important to keep up the visual and intellectual research — to look, listen and read all the time. It is rare that I indulge in any activity that does not directly relate to my work. Because I have a full-time job, this means I don’t get to see friends as often as I would like, unless it is an art-related expedition. On the weekends, mornings, and evenings, I work on my personal projects. When BJ and I visit family or travel—during any vacations—we more often than not find a way to shoot. Curiosity and the pleasure of creation keeps us working. Since starting the project BJ enrolled in a doctoral program and I became a curator at a museum. We help to support each other, and find ways to advocate for creative freedom and social justice in our work. The photographs we create together inform this work and vice-versa.
What’s next for you?
For ‘Beautiful Boy,’ I am preparing for another New York solo show, a solo booth at PULSE Art Fair, and a solo show at the Newport Art Museum, along with other group exhibitions.
A show that I curated (Canon: Juan Jose Barboza-Gubo and Andrew Mroczek) about the LGBTQ community in Peru just opened at the Museum of Sex this week. There are several exhibitions in progress at the Museum, set to open in the coming year. It has been wonderful to have the opportunity to curate shows that support underrepresented communities. Sexuality has been so undervalued as a legitimate topic, so it is rewarding to see the recent shows gain legitimacy in the mainstream art press. I love being part of this cultural shift.
In five years, I don’t know where I will be. I hope to keep moving forward and stay strong. It would be wonderful to see BJ still in my life and my pictures, like Eleanor was for Callahan and Edith was for Emmet Gowin. I’ll probably always blow any money I make on more art-making, but it would be nice to have a little home of our own someday, because BJ wants a second cat.