If you went to a drag bar in Los Angeles in the 1980s or ’90s, you might have seen a buoyant Reynaldo Rivera working the room. If your look was interesting, chances are his irresistible charm and humor would have you posing as he snapped away.
Rivera came to Scripps College’s Balch Auditorium March 13 to present his work. Invited to Claremont by longtime friend Chris Kraus, the Mary Routt Humanities Chair at Scripps, the photographer is currently collaborating with Kraus to produce a book of Rivera’s photographs that highlight the ’80s and ’90s trans and gay Latinx subculture in Los Angeles.
Rivera discussed and showed a slideshow of the photos that will appear in his book, and followed the talk with a Q&A.
“I know many [people] in both our colleges and local communities are concerned with matters of gentrification, identity and art,” Corrina Lesser, the organizer for Scripps Presents, said via email. “Given our proximity to Los Angeles, it’s a great opportunity to hear from someone who has documented that ever-evolving metropolis to our west.”
The event was intimate and interactive from the beginning. Kraus first reminisced on her 20-year friendship with Rivera before reading an essay that introduced the book. Many of the audience members were Rivera’s friends, and some even appeared in the essay and photographs.
Rivera first started taking photographs as a young migrant worker from Mexico. He came to downtown LA for seasonal work and stayed at the St. Leo Hotel. As a result, the first photos he took were of the hotel’s maid Minny, and he said his early photographs all came out black.
He learned to take pictures through trial and error, and modeled his images after old movies and magazine spreads. He was drawn to photography for its ability to preserve moments in time.
“I didn’t choose [photography] — it chose me. I wanted to do other stuff, but it came out of my need to document,” Rivera said. “I am a control freak, and interestingly enough photography allows you to control even time. You can freeze any second in time and relive it over and over.”
Rivera photographed in black and white because the film was cheaper, but also because “when you’re looking at something in color, the color is going to take your eye away from whatever the fuck is going on,” he said.
With black and white, he felt he could focus on the subject. As he went through the photographs, he engaged with the audience and told stories. Occasionally he paused on a photo in contemplation and the audience would goad him to reveal the context.
One of the photos showed a drag queen staring to the right of the viewer. “I love this photo and photos like these,” Rivera said. “I mean, what was she thinking?”
He then showed a photo of another drag queen and joked, “but not this girl, she was always thinking the same thing. See?” he laughed, flipping to a photo of the same subject posing in the mirror.
The compiled images offered an exhaustive view of an under-documented subculture in Los Angeles, but mostly an intimate view into Rivera’s life in the ’80s and ’90s. There were pictures of his friends and family at birthdays, Halloween parties and weddings.
At one point he said, “It feels like I’m flipping through a picture book, I’m getting emotional.”
Occasionally the slideshow jumped to Mexico City, where Rivera was born and returned throughout his 20s. Rivera became a National Geographic photographer for his work in Mexico City, but he mostly glossed over those images to return to his LA photographs.
He commented that his work was often compared to a contemporary artist, Diane Arbus, but explained that there was a key distinction between their work. “She made normal people look freaky, but I make freaky people look normal,” he said.
He wanted to portray subjects in their natural habitat: “When you look at my stuff you almost feel as though you’re invited in and you are a part of it because in most cases I was a part of what was going on,” he said. “That was always my forte, to make people feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable in front of this exposing thing.”
During the Q&A, most audience members wanted to know whether there was a subject matter that captivated Rivera in the same way as his earlier photographs, and Rivera said there was not.
“Things have changed from when I was doing this stuff back then to now,” he said. “I [photographed] a lot of trans clubs back then and they were really aware of your presence there because they didn’t allow cameras, especially in the back rooms where they were creating their magic.” In those days, he said that even the trans community was an outcast in the greater gay community.
“I document people now, and the young folk — they could give half a shit — they were taking their clothes off, they didn’t care that I was there taking photos, and that was a very different experience from back in the day when I shot all that stuff.”
Rivera’s currently unnamed book will come out next year through Kraus’s independent publishing press Semiotext(e).