Lissa Rivera: Beautiful Boy
When I first encountered Lissa Rivera’s photograph, Motel, Virginia, I was a bit distracted. I was initially drawn to her brilliant use of color, the red lips, the pose, and cinematic lighting that referenced movie making. Upon further examination, I realized there was a lot more going on under the sheets, and as I began to understand the intent of this exploration, the project rose up with a richness that comes with the perfect combination of beauty, storytelling, authenticity, and truth. Lissa’s ability to take us through her subject’s journey of self-examination and gender exploration using dress and feminine ideals reflects her definition of what she sees as feminine. The work is fascinating, unsettling, and lovely–regardless of the subject or intent, these are wonderful portraits. Lissa has recently joined the roster of photographers represented by Clampart in New York and will have an exhibition of the work in Clampart’s new storefront space in 2017.
Lissa Rivera is a photographer based in Brooklyn, New York whose work has received multiple grants and honors, and been exhibited internationally. She grew up near Rochester, New York, home of Eastman Kodak, where as a child she was exposed to the treasures at the George Eastman Museum. After receiving her MFA from the School of Visual Arts, Rivera worked professionally in collections, including the Museum of the City of New York, where she became fascinated with the social history of photography and the evolution of identity in relationship to photographic technologies. 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. She was chosen as a Woman to Watch for the biennial exhibition at the National Museum of Woman in Arts and received The Peter Urban Legacy Award in the 2016 Griffin Museum Juried Show, curated by Elizabeth Avedon. Rivera also received the 2016 Feature Shoot Emerging Photography Award curated by Jessie Wender, Fiona Rogers, Kevin Wy Lee, Sarah Sudhoff, Liz Lapp, and Jennifer Schwartz.
Beautiful Boy is an ongoing project that began as a confession between two 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. As time went on, we realized that we had unexpectedly fallen in love. 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 an 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 image, films, and records of women that we idolize and consume together.
Collaging the visual language of the past, I tap into deep-seated narratives about gender, desire, freedom, and cultural taboo. 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.
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