photographer lissa rivera’s enchanting portraits of her gender-fluid boyfriend
'Beautiful Boy' began as a subway confession between two friends. After BJ told Lissa that he liked wearing women's clothing, they started exploring this through portrait sessions, and eventually became lovers.
We've long been obsessed with the relationship between artist and muse. Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick, Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow, Ilona Staller and Jeff Koons — the connection is one of intimacy, intuition, and often, traditional gender roles. Photographer Lissa Rivera wants to explore the feminine muse not as a creative presence but as a constant collaborator. Her own muse is her genderqueer boyfriend, BJ. The two immerse themselves in different feminine fantasies — conceptualizing thrifted costumes and assembling elaborate sets — to celebrate the traditional muse figure while stretching its limits. "We are immune to images of beautiful women and have been taught that the vanity of wanting to be recorded in art is somewhat of a lesser pursuit," Lissa says. "I hope to illuminate the muses of the past that make the art that we worship so poignant with their vulnerability and creative presence."
But BJ wasn't Lissa's muse when the idea for Beautiful Boy arose. In fact, they weren't even dating. The idea for the project came, as good ideas often do, during a long subway ride. BJ revealed to Lissa that he occasionally liked dressing in women's clothes, though had stopped doing so after graduating college and getting an office job. They decided to start taking photos as an experiment in vulnerability and confidence. Over multiple shoots and countless costumes, BJ became Lissa's muse, her collaborator, and eventually, her lover. As Beautiful Boy opens at New York's ClampArt gallery, we talked to BJ and Lissa about looking to the past to shape a more progressive future.
Were you nervous about having your private experiences published and exhibited, or was this the intention all along?
BJ: I was definitely nervous at first! It is a very surreal experience to be in the public eye in such a vulnerable way. But it is very gratifying at the same time. We occasionally hear from other queer or gender nonconforming people who have found the images empowering or have connected to them, which is especially wonderful.
LR: Yes, it took a while to acclimate! The biggest surprise was seeing articles pop up in China and Latin America. Knowing that our work was having an impact on so many people was mind-blowing. Although the work is very personal, over time I have learned to adapt to the anxiety I had around sharing it. I hope that people enjoy the images — and if they don't, I hope it challenges their perceptions of gender and photography, at least for a moment!
Do you think you would have ended up in a romantic relationship had it not been for this project?
BJ: From this vantage point, it's honestly hard to imagine Lissa and I meeting but not ending up in a relationship. At the same time, it's equally hard to imagine Lissa and I spending time together, and not hitting on the idea of taking pictures. The two are just so intertwined. In some ways, they are two manifestations of the same relationship — or the photographs are a kind of public versus private iteration of our daily experience. Of course, the relationship is far bigger and more beautiful than the photographs — how could it be otherwise? The photographs are a facet of the relationship.
Lissa: BJ has always made me feel safe and fully accepted. Being treated with such kindness and support helped me to find my voice as an artist. It is BJ as an individual who is most special and the work is very much meant to honor the beauty I see in him. Although I see myself working with other subjects in the future, I hope to photograph BJ over a period of time, like Emmet Gowin, Harry Callahan, and Lee Friedlander had the pleasure of doing with their romantic partners and muses.
How does reimagining historical representations of femininity allow you to challenge traditional narratives?
BJ: It is incredible to be able to "step-inside" the images, which are a complex stage woven out of a variety of influences that we find potent. Photography and film can be incredibly powerful, and iconic images have the power to change culture. We hope to illuminate this phenomenon, revealing the impact of idols from early fashion and film who are deeply embedded in the DNA of the image culture surrounding femininity.
Lissa: I hope to reveal the importance of the feminine muse as a collaborator. Until quite recently, women were not allowed admission into most art schools, or even figure drawing classes. The story of a young woman artist apprenticing for a male artist in exchange for serving as their muse is quite a common one. How did these creative and intelligent women affect the output of these "masters"? Many times I get questions about who BJ is, what his role is, what his contribution is. If I were a male presenting a portfolio of images of a cis-woman, I suspect that questions about her contribution would be less common.
BJ, how have the traditionally feminine costumes affected your relationship to the everyday, masculine attire you wear to work?
BJ: Since we started the project, I have evolved into a more androgynous wardrobe, mixing together dresses and blouses with skinny jeans and t-shirts. Pretty ordinary fare, really. I recently donated a box of long-unworn men's shirts! Our photographs have definitely given me a lot of added confidence.
"Beautiful Boy" is on view at ClampArt in NYC through July 15, 2017. An artist talk with BJ Lillis takes place Saturday, June 10 at 3pm.
Text Hannah Ongley
Photography Lissa Rivera