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Tender Portraits of a Photographer's Muse Challenge Ideas of Gender Identity

Kara Weisenstein

Kara Weisenstein

Lissa Rivera's portraits of her lover, BJ Lillis, shake up the artist-muse relationship.

This article originally appeared on Creators.

Reclining on a sofa, willowy limbs akimbo, draped in pastel chiffon, photos of BJ Lillis, photographer Lissa Rivera's model, muse, and romantic partner, look like a fashion spread out of Vogue. His gaze rivals Cara Delevigne or Hari Nef's. The scenes are splendid, sumptuous, and undeniably feminine.

When he and Rivera were still new friends, Lillis divulged that he'd almost exclusively worn women's clothing in college. But after taking a professional job in New York, he felt much less free to explore. Rivera, who'd struggled with prescribed femininity in her own life, suggested photography as a means to explore Lillis's identity outside of isolation. A creative partnership was born, and the early photos Lillis and Rivera shot together became an ongoing series called Beautiful Boy. Portraits from the series are featured in Rivera's first major solo exhibition at ClampArt, on view June 1 to July 15.

Lissa Rivera - Beautiful Boy - Virginia

In the years since Rivera and Lillis started working together, the series has evolved to investigate the visual language of femininity, a thing deeply embedded in cultural DNA. "We grow up watching Disney, and there's always a moral tale about a woman who did all of her work properly, or has some sort of feminine talent that helps her escape an oppressive situation, like The Little Mermaid with her voice," Rivera tells Creators. For this reason, Rivera says fashion and beauty—skills related to self-image—are intrinsically linked to the feminine identity.

"I feel like self-image is so linked to a sense of survival for women still," Rivera explains. "These different techniques are really a form of survival, in some sense, so they're very personal to being a woman." Enjoying the creativity of traditionally feminine crafts can be fraught for people of any gender identity then, when societal pressure is factored in. "Sometimes characteristics seen as feminine can be perceived as weaker than masculine. Being softer, more emotional, or enjoying things that girls like can be seen as negative traits when you're a kid," Rivera says.

Lissa Rivera - Beautiful Boy - Joshua Tree, California

Beautiful Boy is steeped in liberating playfulness, empowering Lillis to explore and revel in the feminine aspects of his personality. Over time, Rivera and Lillis's friendship blossomed into romance, and the couple relish an intimate artist-muse relationship, as so many male artists have experienced historically. "I'm trying to understand a very complex issue, as to why women are muses, not doing the looking," Rivera says.

"This is something Lissa really helped me understand," Lillis explains. "There's all these images and narratives that we've been soaked in since we were babies, you know? And then that forms what you want, and what you desire, and how you see yourself. And [Lissa and I] take this attitude that's totally playful towards that. Like, you can be this today, you can be that tomorrow, or you can do whatever you want."

Lissa Rivera - Beautiful Boy - Italy

Though their photos look high-fashion, Rivera and Lillis work on a budget. Early shoots were in Rivera's apartment, with garments made from discount fabric picked up on Flatbush Avenue. "We still do some experiments, like shooting with backdrops and stuff at home, but then we go to these places that are much more opulent, sometimes making it look like we have more money than we do, and living out these other fantasy lifestyles," Rivera says.

Lissa Rivera - Beautiful Boy - Palm Springs, California

"We talk a lot about our fantasies and what we're interested in. And when we shoot, I try to step into the fantasy that we're creating, inhabit it, and bring it to life," Lillis adds. Inspiration comes from old movies, mid-century magazines, celebrity lore, even people they hang out with. For a kitschy-retro shoot in a pink hotel room, for example, the couple channelled Priscilla Presley, who Elvis discovered on a beach and spirited away to Graceland when she was just 17. In an opulent green room, Lillis looks like a matchy-matchy society matron, which Rivera says was inspired by the late photographer Larry Sultan's portraits of his mother. "I take all these different stories, from biographies to photos, and I collage them together, in a sense. Sometimes there's three or four different stories in one image," Rivera says.

Lissa Rivera - Beautiful Boy - Lavender Gown

What constitutes "normal" gender expression is changing at an exponential rate, but society is still obsessed with labeling identity. Rivera and Lillis have consciously cultivated a relationship free from the pressure to conform to normative roles. "I don't really see gender as a fundamental part of my identity, or even as a solid, static thing that I'm trying to reach," Lillis says. "I'm kind of in between or moving around [a gender expression], and however people react to that is fine. It's okay if I confuse people."

Lissa Rivera - Beautiful Boy - Blindfold

Lissa Rivera - Beautiful Boy - Joshua Tree, California

Lissa Rivera - Beautiful Boy - Motel, California

Lissa Rivera - Beautiful Boy - Joshua Tree, California

For more work by Lissa Rivera, visit her website. Selections from Beautiful Boy are on view in NSFW: Female Gaze at the Museum of Sex, co-curated by Creators.