Meet the Photographer Using Her Partner as a Muse to Challenge Gender Identity

Meet the Photographer Using Her Partner as a Muse to Challenge Gender Identity

When you consider the biggest trends, your favorite celebrity, or the greatest works of art, the common thread that connects them all is that they're largely inescapable. You see their image reproduced again and again, and begin to recognize them. Unwittingly, that recognition imprints them on our consciousness and societally, we accept them. Even if you felt entirely at odds with wearing white jeans, but then saw an image of a famous model online, or even a billboard, wearing white jeans, you might re-consider. Humans may be stubborn, but photographer Lissa Rivera says we're also highly adaptable, and of course, no one wants to be left behind.

Herein lies the genius of Rivera's work, which explores the way femininity been shaped through images using her gender-queer partner, BJ Lillis, as her model. For her new series, Beautiful Boy, Rivera is art director, costume designer, make-up artist and photographer, traveling around the country with Lillis who dons womenswear and poses sensually in locations scouted by Rivera – from seedy motels to gaudy mansions. Rivera is determined for photos like these to move beyond anomaly, and instead becoming so ubiquitous that audiences can't help but recognize and appreciate the beauty in gender-fluidity. We sat down with the couple to talk the dimensions of gender, the male muse and how photography informs society.

The whole progression of this project is fascinating, how did BJ become your muse?

Rivera: Well we were friends and I was at a turning point in my life where I didn't feel like I was fully expressing myself, I didn't feel like I was in the right place and able to be open with people. The whole time I was telling BJ about it and such a good listener. Then one day we were taking the subway home from a film screening and he told me he likes to wear women's clothing but he was working in a conservative office so he was struggling to find a place to express himself. BJ doesn't really like to rock the boat as well, he's very sensitive to other people. I thought that maybe we could do a little experiment together, then we ended up really connecting and falling in love.

We started out in my apartment, we were just using the kitchen and then buying all these discount fabrics and dragging them home. Then we started going on adventures. I would location scout and then we would take a trip. I would prepare like you prepared for a film you know, I would sketch out scenes and come up with costumes and coming up with the script. It's been a lot of fun, especially working with BJ on this. He would wear my clothes that look so much better on him. Like my swimsuit, I'm like, how can I wear that again?

From the series 'Beautiful Boy' by Lissa Rivera. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York.

What's your favorite type of clothing, BJ? What do you feel most comfortable in?

Lillis: In my life I wear pretty simple dresses, but depending on what I'm doing and where I'm going I'll move from more androgynous to more feminine.

When you say it's based on where you're going, does that mean sensitivity to a particular situation? Is it a self-preservation thing?

Lillis: You know, it's not that I'm a super feminine person and in my ideal world I'd be wearing pink sundresses all the time and I compromise. It's that I'm a genderfluid person and I want to present in a more androgynous or more feminine way.

What pronouns do you use?

Lillis: I use male pronouns, but female get thrown at me in public all the time and I'm fine with that. I thought about they/them but it's hard. Misgendering someone is a really serious thing, but for me as a genderqueer person, if I'm presenting in a more masculine way then I get being addressed with masculine pronouns. I don't feel like I have one gender identity, it's not fixed.

From the series 'Beautiful Boy' by Lissa Rivera. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York.

Gender and sex is confused all the time. What I love about this project is that it's not an exposé, it's not "BJ's secret life." It's a fantasy world and BJ is the protagonist. That's what makes it so pure.

Rivera: Right, they're all based off how you construct your gender based on what you see, whether that be a beauty tutorial or a film or a fashion photograph. So a lot of this is looking at the DNA of femininity in America.

Is it confronting for you at all, BJ?

Lillis: Well the project was never about showing me...and I never wanted it to be about that. It's more focused on both of our relationships to femininity.

Rivera: I feel like we use fashion to time travel to understand the roots of femininity and how it felt in the past, as well as the roles women played. The pressure of gender as well.

Are you making any kind of judgment regarding how constraining the standards of femininity can be?

Rivera: Not a judgment per se, we find pleasure in the beauty. Pleasure in the textures and the fabrics. We're exploring the ambiguity and the grey areas of the feminine roles. It's so great to be with someone who so loves being in the photos and working with me. There are so many men whose wives were their muses and many don't understand the importance of the muse. What I wanted to do was highlight that contribution.

From the series 'Beautiful Boy' by Lissa Rivera. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York.

It is seen as such a passive role, isn't it?

Rivera: Right, but BJ is always so present and so open. BJ enjoys his beauty and is open about that, but he will always try things other people might be afraid to do.

How collaborative is it in a directorial sense? How much creative input do you have, BJ?

Lillis: So it's a collaboration in the sense that we discuss a lot together as to what we're trying to do and accomplish and my role is bringing it to life as the muse. In terms of artistic decision-making, it's all Lissa. I have ideas sometimes and we can try them but they don't always work.

Rivera: I think I've always been addicted to photos, even the colors I use reference images from 30s or 40s, so everything is steeped in this obsession I have. So it's like BJ is stepping into the past with me. The way someone is photographed really changes how they are viewed in society.

They're all very nostalgic.

Rivera: Yeah, I'm really interested in those early days of Vogue – those vintage images that people re-do over and over again – and exploring how they've informed femininity.

From the series 'Beautiful Boy' by Lissa Rivera. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York.

Right, as is, why are we attracted to them?

Rivera: Exactly, and I love to look at my partner in this light. Most men are so afraid of being pretty.

Of course, they don't get to be vulnerable like this.

Rivera: I know, I'm hoping the attitudes are changing now.

How do you find your locations?

Rivera: I mean, we don't even like taking trips anymore unless we're planning to do a shoot. I will look at thousands of real estate listings and read Yelp reviews for hotels. The first time it was so scary, we just went outside in our neighborhood and we were like, "What if people notice!" But no one ever does.

Are there still times where you worry what people might think?

Rivera: I definitely get protective over BJ when we go out.

How much of your own wardrobe goes into it?

Rivera: Now we have a whole rack of clothes, but it used to be only my clothes earlier on – that was during the honeymoon stage of our relationship.

From the series 'Beautiful Boy' by Lissa Rivera. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York.

Exactly! You must look back at that and see every stage of your relationship documented.

Lillis: It's very sentimental.

Rivera: It's so sentimental, I look back like, "Baby BJ!"

I love how the whole series is really dissecting trends, instead of this like obsession with originality that so many artists have, you really pay homage to different artists and eras and styles.

Rivera: Oh yeah, I had this big obsession with Old Hollywood and Priscilla Presley. The idea of the surreal interiors of the 60s, I think you can still find it in California.

Is it intimidating for you both to have the series viewed publicly?

Lillis: For me the press is more intimidating than the gallery wall, because everything is on the Internet. It's really fun to have people see it.

Rivera: Through it I've connected with photographers all over the world and people that are like , "Oh my husband wears nail polish, or I'm a man and I wear dresses at home."

I think we're finally realizing that just because you enjoy crossdressing does not mean you are closeted transgender.

Rivera: I honestly think about in terms of the Mona Lisa. It was stolen in the early 1900s, and there weren't a lot of famous paintings, but because the image of it was repeated in papers over and over again, it became known through the process of reproduction. Now people take their own photos of it. Humans are so susceptible to repetition. Even fashion styles get introduced that are really unusual, but then people will see it and they'll start wearing it, because they see everyone wear it. So it's so important to put images like this out in the world and keep doing it, because when people see it presented in a positive light, the more they will feel comfortable with it. Seeing and assimilating.

"Beautiful Boy" runs June 1 to July 15 at ClampArt, 247 West 29th Street, Chelsea; Lissa Rivera and BJ Lillis will give a gallery talk there on June 10 at 3 p.m.; they will also appear at the Mid-Manhattan Library on June 22. Click through below to see more of Lissa and BJ's work.

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