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Two friends. A secret unreservedly laid bare. A starry night seems to protect the verbal intimacy of an encounter, whose contours, barely revealed, gracefully fluctuate and sway like reeds around a lake. Enveloped in the semi-darkness of a subway, BJ’s voice gradually emerges and fades against the noisy background. His words are as delicate as leaves. They’re blessed by the colours of autumn. They grab Lissa’s attention with the lyrical potency of a sonnet. They awake her curiosity. Softly, soundlessly.

Beautiful boy
, Lissa Rivera’s latest photographic project, draws inspiration precisely from those first words, BJ’s first words; breathed testaments of a journey of self-discovery and self-analysis that gradually develop into material, tactile images. Beautiful boy is, for this reason, a powerful and compelling visual investigation into the very idea of gender as a dynamic, fluid process. In re-reading and re-defining the commonly imposed models of femininity, the New York-based photographer thus creates an incredibly suggestive visual essay focused on BJ: model, friend and romantic partner. We asked Lissa to tell us more about her ambitious project here’s what she’s got to say. 
Hi, Lissa. First of all, could you tell us more about yourself and your personal background? Where did you grow up and how did you become interested in photography? 
I grew up in a small town in Upstate NY. There was nothing going on there. I had to be creative to find adventures. Activities included exploring the ruins of an old railway station, or renting R rated films. Every few years my family would visit the George Eastman House, which is a wonderful Gilded Age mansion with a photography museum attached. It was both an oasis and a relic in that area of the Rust Belt, a remnant of a grander past. I saw nude photos of Georgia O'Keefe there and hung out in the bookshop. I took home a book about Man Ray. He seemed like he had the coolest friends. The images of Lee Miller, Duchamp and Ernst were sexy, spooky and strange. In high school we were given cameras for a graphic design course and I immediately began dressing up my friends and family in the style of the 1920s avant-garde. My college admission essay was basically about how I wanted to be like Man Ray. I got into school in Boston, and I’ve stuck with cities ever since. I've been in NYC 10 years now.
Take us back to the origins of Beautiful boy. When and how did the idea for this project arise? 
Beautiful boy was born out of a series of conversations between my friend BJ and I about femininity, fantasy and gender. At the time we were not in a romantic relationship and had no idea of the future. On a subway ride home from a queer film screening, BJ (who is now my sweetheart) confessed that they preferred to be feminine and often wore dresses. In college he was able to be open about his gender expression, but since moving to the city and taking on a new job, it had become more complicated. We spoke about the struggles that we both felt with femininity, how femininity is still considered weaker and less valuable in our culture. I offered to take BJ’s portrait, so that he could see himself.
Jacques Lacan’s essay on the ‘mirror stage’ has always fascinated me. I was interested in the idea of the struggle to ‘see oneself’ and how this is represented in photography. Before I took any photos of BJ I wanted him to see the art that helped me relate to my own gender identity – outside of the narrow representations of gender and sexuality in popular media. I sent him films by Fassbinder, Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, Louis Malle, Von Sternberg and Chytilová. I made Pinterest boards of beautiful images that represented femininity as something ecstatic and glorious – images in beautiful technicolor, autochrome and dye transfer processes. Before I knew it I began creating the building blocks for the project that was yet to come.
Can you remember the first picture you took from the series? Can you tell us the story behind it?
Before taking the first picture, I had only seen BJ in oversized menswear. This was his office attire. He relied on gifts from his family to acquire work clothes, because he did not identify with shopping for male-gendered clothes anymore. For the most part, BJ switches into dresses at home. I think his family thought he was still growing, as they were buying him voluminous shirts and gigantic pants – I think that he saw them as a kind of masculine disguise or performance. BJ was a wallflower, floating around the office in these large outfits quietly being helpful and studious. When BJ came to my apartment for the initial shoot, I had a makeshift backdrop set up and yards of pretty fabric for costumes. We had planned on replicating an old Nickolas Muray photo, and created it like two kids playing dress up. BJ modestly slipped into an old piece of velvet I formed into a dress and sat down to have his makeup done for the first time. He was so tender and vulnerable and open to this strange experiment. It was a low budget version of the Gone with the Wind curtain scene, and BJ did look radiant after the transformation. As I completed his makeup, I noticed a longing in his gaze and realized we were both trying to voice something that had been repressed. It was a powerful connection. Frankly we were quite frightened, and we did not take pictures after that for some time. When I showed friends the photos, they were unenthusiastic. Inside I was ecstatic, because I saw the potential. Instead of taking photos, for months we kept philosophizing, collecting pictures and watching movies until we realized it was more than a friendship. After we became a couple, we began taking photos like addicts. We did several shoots every weekend. It was thrilling to see BJ transform into countless goddess-like forms.

There’s a passage, specifically drawn from your introduction to the series, that particularly caught my attention. “Taking the first pictures was an emotional experience,” you reveal to the audience. “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.” Could you please elaborate on this specific aspect? What can you tell us about your personal approach with femininity and what kind of impact do you think this project has had on your intimate understanding of it? 
As a young child I was hyper aware of gendered propaganda. I hated pink and Lisa Frank and books about kittens from the time I was five. Later I vehemently opposed being a typical girl by dressing very artistically. Being strange and searching out obscure art was my pastime in a small town where I had few compatible companions who would take this risk. I think that the first rumor that I was a lesbian was from a best friend who decided to drop me and form a clique centered on hanging out at the mall called the ‘Gap Girls’. Once I was labeled with the scarlet “L” I was violently targeted by almost everyone, even the hippies. But this made me want to rebel more, so I cut my hair short and listened to the Velvet Underground really loud in the art room. Eventually, at about 16, I wanted to be accepted as beautiful and to survive. I began to hide all of that secret knowledge. As an experiment, I looked up tutorials on how to become an attractive woman, plucking my eyebrows and bleaching my hair blonde. I ended up more like a Candy Darling remix than anything like the popular girls. Boys began noticing me. I was less lonely, but at the same time completely isolated as I had to hide my difference. When I got to art school I mostly wanted to hang out with boys, to look like a woman on the outside but act like a ‘man’. I was the one to ask the guys out, make the filthiest jokes, discuss in length the Marquis De Sade, speak out loud in class, and flirt without being the most beautiful. I hated gendered ideas like ‘girl talk’ and wanted to keep up with the guys. I would pretend that misogynist and demeaning behavior did not faze me. It was not until being in a relationship with BJ and taking the photographs that I realized that as a woman I myself had become a misogynist. A lot of the work stems from the power that comes from feminine beauty and the struggle for the strength to reclaim feminine sexuality in the face of objectification.

Your series clearly tackles and overthrows dominant constructs of gender. There is no fixed norm of femininity, or beauty, you seem to imply in your work. But what is Beauty to you?
Beauty to me is the connection between my partner and I, his belief in me and empathy towards me. His presence in my images is truly a gift. He is quite patient and loving towards me although I struggle sometimes as an artist. That connection is a deeply beautiful aspect of the work. The superficial beauty can be seen in the quality of light, and the colors and textures within the images. Personally, I am attracted to glamour and androgyny as it implies freedom from class and gender. When I photograph BJ we explore the lineage of feminine fantasies presented throughout the history of photography and cinema. It is a way to ‘step-inside’ images that we have found attractive in some way and explore what it is like to live each scenario out. It is really honest in a way, because we are not denying the seductiveness of the images we are drawn to. Really, I want to express the kind of feeling when you watch a film – let’s say starring Catherine Deneuve – and then for about a half an hour afterwards you wind up constantly checking in the mirror to see if you kind of look like her (which of course you don’t). The images shift with our desires. By presenting BJ within the lineage of great beauties and populating the media with many images through articles such as these, we are reclaiming our voice in what is attractive and beautiful. We piece together costumes from thrift shops and discount fabric outlets. We seek out locations that imply we live a more luxurious life on a limited budget. I do the make up and styling myself – there is no beauty retouching in post-production, as I think it is important that the images not be seamless, but more of a collage where you can see the glue.
In Minnie and Moskowitz, a 1971 film directed by John Cassavetes, there’s a character who splendidly verbalizes her doubts about love. According to this fictional character, Minnie Moore (played by Gena Rowlands), love is apparently something that movies created to make us believe, or hope, in a better life. But isn’t this kind of inference, I wonder, also extremely applicable to our current idea of beauty? Our modern society appears to be so profoundly defined and sculpted by reiterated formulas of beauty. Images and trends promoted by media thus become part of a wider emulative process that leads men to assimilate – and consequently desire – an imaginary ‘ideal,’ a mere concept. What’s your take on this, Lissa? And how do you think this project can offer an alternative point of view to the universally accepted precepts of beauty?
I think that repetition is a psychological tool with which the media promotes certain types of beauty. Repetition creates a level of familiarity. This familiarity reinforces recognition. Since beauty is subjective, the media can point to a particular kind of beauty to guide its audience. This shifts in relation to the cultural ideals of the time and the need to propel consumerism. The techniques of representing beauty often involve high levels of production through styling, rich fabrics and sophisticated imaging as well as association with fantastic and dream-like scenarios. As is seen often in fashion editorials (such as those by Guy Bourdin), these fantasies can even be dark and quite frightening. It is very natural to feel the need to assimilate to one’s surroundings and mimic the repeated trends, because physical beauty is still presented to women as an element of survival. These trends tend to reinforce gender roles that police sexuality and relationships. An example of the power of repetition is the Mona Lisa. When the painting was stolen in 1911 it gained worldwide fame. It was reproduced countless times in newspapers around the world and became a household name. Now millions of tourists flock to the Louvre each year to take countless vapid cell phone snapshots of the most widely reproduced painting. Warhol understood the power of repetition of ideals by the media when he painted Marilyn the same way he painted a soup can.
I think it is subversive that BJ is my muse, much in the way that Gena Rowlands was for Cassavetes, Giulietta Masina for Fellini and Liv for Bergman (this of lover/muses list could go on quite far). When we were first able get into the project, I felt like I was on cloud nine, on a giant ladder looking down from the heavens. I felt what those men must have felt! I was never to be the same again. When I show the photographs I get countless questions about BJ. Is he ok with this? What does he do professionally? What decisions does he make in the creative process? How many people ask these questions about female muses? Can you imagine a man exhibiting images of his beautiful girlfriend receiving such inquiries? Pretty women are often both invisible and visible, adored and abhorred. I hope that this project allows women to enjoy feminine beauty without shame, and allows those of any gender expression to experience looking and being looked at with pleasure. We should also look back on the role of the feminine muse as having much more authorship in the creative process.

“I think that repetition is a psychological tool with which the media promotes certain types of beauty. Repetition creates a level of familiarity. This familiarity reinforces recognition.”
Each photograph from the series simulates a very specific scenario that takes the viewer back to a past and highly sophisticated era. Could you tell us more about the reasons behind this choice? How do you and your partner usually set the scene?
We begin by studying the films and history of an era. For example, we recently watched a six hour long BBC documentary about the history of RKO studios that explored the making of Hollywood stars who were larger than life symbols of feminine beauty. One episode explored the Pygmalion like obsessions of directors like Howard Hughes. Hughes was obsessed with Jane Russell, and he was bent on constructing the perfect woman, to the point of personally engineering her brassieres and spending hours with retouchers to manipulate her features with microscopic detail. I am fascinated by the effect that behind the scenes stories such as these might have had on the broader public who modeled themselves on these manipulated images. I am quite sensitive to the color pallets of different time periods, as well as to the quality of the textiles, which are related to history in a larger sense. If we are planning to shoot at a particular location, I study the history of the building. BJ loves this as well, as he is a historian by profession. I like layered references, like the 1920’s revival in the 1970s – double nostalgia.
These photographs are often taken within the boundaries of an intimate and circumscribed space (a room or a hotel corridor, for instance). Can I ask you why?
The taking of the images started out very quietly. We did not decide to make them public for some time. We were both coming into our own through the creative process, artistically as well as intimately in a relationship with fluid gender roles. Within these personal spaces, we are free to explore the limits of our desires more liberally. The world-building element of our work is empowering and seductive. We love ‘bedroom music’, such as the work of Brian Wilson. Many of our influences come from the literature of reclusive individuals who preferred a private fantasy world. Other influences include Outsider and Self-Taught artists, such as Eugene Von Bruenchenhein and his muse/wife Marie, who created very private and original work within their modest Wisconsin home that was quite radical for its time.
Is there an implied fictional (or non-fictional) narrative that links together each episode from the series?
It is mostly improvisational. We are basically creating a living Pinterest board based on the fluidity of our desires. I am not a huge fan of starting out with an artist statement or script, as it can inhibit the creative process. 
What’s coming next for you?
Someplace warm hopefully and even brighter colors.

Words
Valeria Giampietro
Photos
Lissa Rivera

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