Below is an excerpt of an essay that appears in Reynaldo Rivera: Provisional Notes for a Disappeared City, edited by Hedi El Kholti and Lauren Mackler, published by Semiotext(e).
Como Buena Mexicana sufriré el dolor tranquila
Reynaldo Rivera started taking photos of people around the hotel — not his dad or his friends, but of the women who cleaned. He asked an elderly woman named Minnie to pose like a star in an old silent movie. The results made him want to do more. In these early photos, the dull, rundown, and depressing St. Leo Hotel and the grandmotherly lady who called him lil chicken were transformed into something bigger and better than life. Photography was clearly the next best thing to making a movie. He dropped his rolls at a downtown Photomat; most of the prints came back blank. When he asked the girl working there what he’d done wrong she told him about f-stops and focusing. He was thrilled when he finally began getting images back. He worked the cannery job for four months each summer. The rest of the time, he lived in LA. He left the cholo and gang world behind him and didn’t look back. In Stockton, he played old records by Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, and Louis Jordan on an old victrola he’d found in a secondhand store. And he followed new bands. In LA, he went to clubs, bleached out his hair, and wore vintage clothes. He reconnected with his cousin Trizia, who was “the most beautiful and cool girl I’d ever seen.” Through Trizia, he met the photographer Michael Rush, a veteran of the 1960s London underground scene. Michael taught him more about photography, and they both introduced him to cocaine.
There was a lot of cocaine, and eventually things would blow up. But in the early ’80s, Trizia and Michael were his gateway to another world. Through them he met Myriam Sorigue and Alex Jordanov, a French couple living in Hollywood. Alex Jordanov worked for Celluloid Records and started Radio Club, the first rap club in LA. Myriam liked Rivera’s work. Myriam set him up with his first photography job, taking photos for Ice-T’s girlfriend. He bought a new Pentax K1000 camera, and took the 1983 black and white glamour photos of fresh, pixieish 19-year-old Herminia in the hallway of an old rooming house, in an alley behind industrial buildings downtown. “In LA, I started documenting everything around me. It was my way of being able to hold onto things. Moments that ordinarily would have disappeared, I would take home to relive over and over. It was some kind of insanity. Because photography was always so expensive, I really had to be careful about how I used my film, because I had no money when I wasn’t working in the cannery. I shot a roll here, a roll there.”
Rivera lost almost all of his earliest work in 1985. By then, Michael and Trizia’s lives had taken a much darker turn, with their drug habits out of control. They were sharing a house. Once, in a rage, Trizia locked him out and when he came back to retrieve his things, most of his negatives were no longer there. He still has the photographs he took in Mexico City in 1983, of the room in Tepito where his step-grandfather was killed. At that time, Tepito was still an underclass neighborhood known for its open-air markets of counterfeit and stolen goods. Rivera and his father had traveled there, weeks after the murder, to help his grandmother deal with property matters. She and her late husband had owned the semi-communal slum building where the murder occurred. “In Mexico, buildings like this are called vecindades — I don’t know where this word comes from. They have courtyards in the middle, called patios, and the deeper inside the vecindad, the poorer you were. There was a song, very popular in Mexico in the ’40s, called Quinto Patio (Fifth Patio). My grandfather was killed by a man with a machete, the boyfriend of someone who lived there. This lady was getting beaten. He went to help her, and the guy just chopped him up. So I went in the room, with my dad, to check the place out. And I took photos of all the blood splattered everywhere. There was a big, framed saint on top of a table, splattered with blood. It was such a creepy image. My step-grandfather was such a nice man, the only one that showed us any kindness. We really felt his departure. That was the first time I went to Mexico City as an adult.” The photos Rivera took in that room are anomalous to the rest of his work. They are a literal document of a horrific and filthy crime scene gone stale. Images of landscape and streets produced in subsequent trips are emotionally rich triggers of portent and imminence. In a photograph taken while traveling in Central America, a passenger boat moves through an empty, dark lake under a cloud-leaden sky, and the bland windowless hall in “Bus Stop, Mexico” (1991) feels thick with echoes and ghosts.
Across his body of work, Rivera depicts people enmeshed in their own private worlds who completely transcend their surroundings through the force of imagination and their inner lives. This remains true, whether the subject is photographed in a garden, a public toilet, or a house party in pre-gentrified Echo Park.
I think this is a primary difference between Rivera’s work and Nan Goldin’s, to whom his portraits of drag queens, trans women, and other friends might be compared. Goldin’s subjects in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency are downwardly mobile: middle class kids who took a wrong turn, captured in louche dens of bohemian squalor during emotionally intimate scenes. Her color-drenched portraits of drag queens taken five years later in The Other Side are deliberately realistic. Jimmy Paulette’s face looks like a death mask in “Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a taxi, NYC” (1991). His makeup is overdone, his fishnet midi is ripped, and the two of them look like pissed off punk girls confronting the sun after a long debauched night.
Rivera’s photographs of drag performers taken in Latino gay bars in LA between 1989 and 1997 reflect a different kind of collaboration. He sees his subjects less as they “are” than how they most wish to be seen, lending himself to their dreams and illusions of glamour. And why shouldn’t these dreams be realized? Wearing a blonde wig and a long taffeta wedding-cake dress, Yoshi floats off the dirty linoleum of the Mugy’s stage “(Yoshi (owner), Mugy’s,” 1995). Wrapped in a towel and a turban, Tina stands on an old wooden chair with a dollar tip tucked under a bra strap, but she’s in heaven. Her eyes closed, the pale shadow rests on her lids and her head tilts gently back as she moves to the music. She’s so forcefully channeling fragile delight that you have to look twice before seeing her masculine triceps and shoulders (“Tina, Mugy’s,” 1995).
By the time he was 19, Rivera stopped going to Stockton for seasonal work. A musician friend introduced him to friends at the LA Weekly. He got a job as a janitor, where he stayed for about a year. Being involved with the paper gave him access to concerts and fashion shows. He took pictures at these events for his own pleasure, and later on sold his prints to the Weekly. Between 1985 and 1990, he photographed dozens of artists and bands, including Chaka Khan, Nick Cave, Sade, Vaginal Davis, Bob Dylan, Siouxsie Sioux, Echo and the Bunnymen, Depeche Mode, Tom Petty, Ray Charles, and many others. None of these shoots were assignments. “I got to choose the people I wanted, and I would photograph them however I wanted to. Because for me, they were the same as my other photographs. I was doing the work for myself. Except for the concert photos, I usually took the photos at their homes, or in other scenarios that were interesting. There’d be times when I got to spend the whole evening hanging out. The pictures of Siouxsie, we took at her birthday party. I remember people saying they didn’t look like photos they saw from regular shoots. They looked like art photos, as opposed to commercial photography. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t thinking, oh, I’m doing this for my career, to put on my resume, so I can sell it — I’m doing this for myself. Photography, for me, was that space between reality and make believe. It kept me protected.”
His friend Gloria Ohland, then an editor at the LA Weekly, brought him along to fashion shows by designers like Christian Lacroix, which he photographed onstage and off. Although most of the negatives for these photos have been lost, I imagine them as precursors to the pictures Rivera would take several years later, an enormous body of work, of performers in Los Angeles drag clubs.
The concert photos he took during those years are remarkable for the relations that they reveal between performers, and the act of performance itself. They provide psychological insight into the dynamics at work among band members. His photographs of Eurythmics performing in 1985 at the Whiskey feature Annie Lennox scowling, seducing, and exhorting the audience, supported by an energy field running between her and guitarist Dave Stewart that feels almost visible. His photographs of Depeche Mode’s 1988 concert emphasize the carefully measured moves of lead singer Dave Gahan’s performance. Photographing Chaka Khan’s show at the Wilshire Bell a year later, Rivera turns from the stage and considers the audience at this small venue, completely connected to the performance, almost as one.
Rivera’s approach to producing these concert photographs wasn’t exactly a matter of framing, exposure or angle. “At the end of the day, it’s how you picture the world. And this is where one photographer is different from another. At the concerts, it would be about finding that moment — the way I want them to look. Sometimes, out of 200 frames, you get two really good ones. Sometimes I didn’t get anything. But if you look at my band photos, I think you’ll see I made the effort to give them more depth. To make it a multi-dimensional image, as opposed to a flat concert photo. I’ve never been into this. I needed them to say something, if that makes any sense. I always look for the image to speak for itself. Whoever looks at the photo, it’s going to say something. My photos are very documentative, laying testament to things that happened. But at the same time, it’s about creating a narrative, a movie. And I see the people as characters. You can say this about all of my work. Sometimes I ask myself why I spent so much money, which at that time was so scarce, on photography. I was constantly creating the movie I wanted to be in, as opposed to the one I was born into.”
The photographs sold to the LA Weekly comprise just a small part of Rivera’s body of work. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, he continued taking pictures of parties and people around him. He traveled to Mexico, Berlin, and Central America, sometimes staying for months. Photography was that space between reality and make believe … The photos he took during these travels often loop back to his literal childhood, as well as his childhood fabulations and dreams. The slick surfaces and glowing street-lights during and after a summer monsoon in Mexico City recall the Paris streets seen by Brassaï, Germaine Krull, and Ilse Bing. The gestures, hairstyle and dress of a bolero performer seen in the street evoke the glamour of Mexican film stars of the golden era, but triply filtered through the passage of a half-century, poverty and old age. A tenement courtyard evokes the Tepito vecindade where his grandfather was murdered; a boy on a metal chair gazing into the camera could have been him two decades before. His photographs of indigenous children selling things in the street could have been ripped from an old National Geographic magazine or The Family of Man; they belong to another world. Later, he travels south to Chiapas and Guatemala. He stops at the edge of a village where a traveling show has set up an old Ferris wheel. The place feels as lost and remote as San Diego de la Unión seemed when he was a child.
“The photos were part of something I was documenting. And so all my work looks — if you put it back to back, it doesn’t matter what the subject is, it’s like one big movie. Whether I was taking photos at fashion shoots, concerts, at home or the clubs in LA. They are all of the same kind of atmosphere. Usually dark.”