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.
(Excerpt above from lissarivera.com)
Newport Out: How has your relationship grown with BJ and he himself grown throughout the Beautiful Boy project?
Lissa: When BJ got his first job out of college he didn’t know what kind of environment he would be entering. He had so many questions. The conversation about gender fluidity was not yet in the mainstream. BJ was worried because he is a very shy person–always thinking about making everyone comfortable. It was hard to be open at the office, because BJ was still needing to experiment in a safe space. There is not the same opportunity in our culture to experiment with feminine expression. If a cis-gendered woman cut their hair short and wore pants it wouldn’t stand out as much. To express femininity is much more visible. When BJ told me that he preferred to wear dresses, but did not know what it meant, I told him that I had a lot of questions too. When I turned five, it seemed like all of a sudden there was a pressure to like the color pink and soft-focus images of kittens. I liked blue and gross things like worms. Because I didn’t fit into the typical vision of a girl, I was bullied a lot.
BJ and I continued to share our feelings and we realized we had a lot of questions that we wanted to investigate. So then we started doing this project as an investigation, opening up a dialog to the ways that gender can be very pleasurable but at the same time be very confining and alienating. Trying to capture all of those things in the work. We ended up realizing that we were very compatible together, in part because of our need for this exploration. It was unfortunate that in the past, I had felt very ashamed for not conforming to the role of a well behaved woman that other people wanted me to play. BJ has always fully accepted me. We created a space where we can both be fully accepted. We’ve found that a lot of older people really like the work too, perhaps because they’ve long been having these feelings too, and holding onto shame for so long.
Newport Out: It was even worse back then, so finally having acceptance is really important and your work amplifies that.
Lissa: Many people come up to me and tell me that their boyfriend wears dresses at home, or nail polish. People tell me that their husband wears dresses too. Or that their lover has transitioned, or is genderqueer. I think it’s really fantastic. I want people to see that there is nothing wrong with being feminine.
Newport Out: I notice that on your website, you organize the Beautiful Boy project into chapters, is there a specific reasoning behind this move?
Lissa: I think of it as these different stories or adventures that we go on. It started out as an open-ended, fluid exploration. Just trying everything out. I really wanted to be free and that was a part of it. Then we decided to plan out our shoots like someone would plan out a film. I gather all the costumes, think about the stories, and plan out the locations over a period of time. Then, we go off and create the work. There is a lot of planning ahead
Newport Out: I was looking at some of the photographs from the series and they have very unique character to them. What’s the amount of set design that goes into these photos?
Lissa: It depends. We often go to locations where we bring giant suitcases, sketches, and concepts for the shoot. Also, we do test shots in the clothes before we go–to figure out the outfits and how they move. It’s often improvisational once we get there, though. The images end up looking way different from what we planned. Most of the time the more interesting photos are unexpected.
Newport Out: From reading about the project on your website, I see that I made my own assumptions about the subject in the photo, and their gender and sexuality. To me, I assumed that perhaps this was a person who identified as a transwoman, but I am reminded that there is more than meets the eye and that labels are limiting. Do you know the subject in the photo, your lover, identifies in terms of their sexual orientation and gender identity?
Lissa: BJ identifies as genderqueer or non-binary, uses male pronouns, and is also comfortable being addressed as a man or a woman. I think we really want people to feel open. It’s about not worrying about being stuck to anything. BJ is very feminine and wears dresses at home and at school. But he also wears pants like anyone would wear pants. When we go out and BJ wears traditionally masculine clothes, people often think we are two women. BJ identifies as more feminine, but does not feel he is transgender.
Newport Out: Have you ever visited Newport?
Lissa: I’ve been to different events for the Newport Art Museum. We both really love the Gilded Age and colonial history. It was really fun to visit and see all the historical architecture and mansions!
Newport Out: I love the notion about reclaiming your voice in what is attractive and beautiful and exploring that for yourselves and allowing others to explore it through your art. That feels really empowering for those who feel called to go against the grain of traditional masculine / feminine norms of beauty, and certainly so for those who might have non-traditional gender identities and sexuality orientations. Do you think you’ll explore these themes in other ways in your work ahead? How has the exploration of this theme been received?
Lissa: We definitely explore the pleasures of self expression. Sometimes I don’t want to shy away from the struggle as well. So I use techniques from the history of fashion photography and cinema, as well as bright colors, to attract viewers. It gets people to look closer and consider ideas that they might otherwise dismiss. I definitely try to have a conversation with a lot of different audiences through the work. I try to explore in a really organic way and to break free of the constraints that people place on themselves even when making art. Moving on in that trajectory, there’s been a lot of support from unexpected audiences. People who on the surface appear conservative are actually very interested in the project. We’ve had conversations with many people who we thought we would never have connected to when coming out with the work. I feel like everyone, no matter how they identify, has had to deal with some kind of struggle with trying to fit into socially inscribed gender roles.
You can view Lissa’s work at The Newport Art Museum until May 20th. For more information visit newportartmuseum.org. If you want to know more about Lissa Rivera’s work including the Beautiful Boy series visit lissarivera.com
Special thanks to Newport Out intern Nathan Taft for doing the interviewing and production to make this blog post possible.