“The only decade I feel nostalgic for is the ‘70s,” says photographer Reynaldo Rivera from his Los Angeles home. “There’s a dreamlike thing in my psyche about the ‘70s as this magical time even though I had this horrifying experience. My father kidnapped me and my sister, took us to a village in Mexico, and left there from ‘69 to ’75. It’s like an Oliver Twist story. This lady took us in and used to sing Toña la Negra songs. Music was my babysitter at a time when I would have had mother, my aunts and uncles.”
After singing a few lyrics to Toña la Negra’s bolero “Arráncame La Vida” Rivera shares the translation by text: “Rip the life from me / With your last love kiss / Tip it, take it, tale me heart / Rip me life and in case the pain hurts you / I must be from not seeing me / Because at the end, your eyes, I took with me.”
“This is what influenced me,” Rivera says. “Music opened the door that allowed me to create an environment where I’d want to take photos. Being into all this Mexican super tragic music created this baroque me, this person that’s over the top emotional. From Toña la Negra, and later Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, I sought answers that told me to take a beating and still love it!”
Traveling between Mexico and the United States as a young man, Rivera discovered photography as a means to creating some semblance of continuity in an otherwise chaotic life. After discovering a camera in a pile of things his father had stolen, Rivera set off to make pictures — only he didn’t have a clue how the camera worked.
“Roll after roll, nothing would come out,” Rivera remembers. “The lady at the Fotomat explained to me what all these knobs did. When you don’t know anything about film and light, it’s like Chinese. I felt like I would never figure it out but soon enough, it was instinctual.”
Rivera created art out of need, teaching himself everything he could. Although he didn’t consider himself an artist, he acknowledges he wanted to be like Brassaï after discovering the French photographer’s work in a used bookstore in Stockton, CA while working as a teen at a cannery with his father.
“This Filipina worked the register and she took a liking to me. She let me take boxes of books and would just charge me a dollar. That’s how I discovered people like Lisette Model and Cartier-Bresson. I would get stacks of magazines from the teens and ‘20s and read through them ferociously. That was my school: all the stuff people threw out were my teachers and here I am at 56.”
Rivera pauses as the words bring a catch to his throat, the impact of not having access to formal education wearing deeply on his soul. “One of my hang-ups was I felt I am uneducated so I can’t contribute or be part of the discussion. I always felt this inferiority complex from not having these credentials — this is why I never called myself a photographer.”
The Glamorous Life
For Rivera, photography fulfilled a vital need, providing a sense of stability in a highly fraught life. In the 1970s, he joined a local gang but never felt that was where his life would begin or end. He left the gangs after his mentor, Gato, was killed. Rivera went from cholo to punk to new wave and never looked back. He eventually came out in 1983, the same year he landed a job at the newspaper LA Weekly.
Rivera dated the music critic and became friends with the fashion editor, connections that opened doors that had previously been closed. After years without access, Rivera had arrived. With VIP access to Latino LGBTQ nightclubs like Mugi, The Silverlake Lounge, and La Plaza, creating a portrait of the performers and patrons who found refuge from a hostile world in a community they created celebrating beauty, glamour, fashion, and self-acceptance chronicled in the new book Reynaldo Rivera: Provisional Notes from a Disappeared City.
“I always photographed everything I wanted to photograph. I wasn’t documenting any particular scene for a magazine,” Rivera says. “I was capturing these moments for myself, so the photographs have an extra layer of meaning. I learned that having all these images in boxes, I was able to relive this stuff over and over. I discovered a time machine and it allowed me to connect with people who were gone and all these scenarios I wanted to be a part of again.”
Saying Goodbye to the City of Night
At that time, AIDS was decimating the community, and virtually everyone Rivera photographed died, some very soon after these pictures were made. “Back in the days, HIV was a death sentence and it was quick. You didn’t have time to get all worked up. You found out you had it and in three or four months you were gone,” Rivera says.
In the late ’90s, Rivera realized his photographs connecting him with the past had become a crutch, creating a profoundly melancholic state that infringed on his mental health. “I went through a period where I started fearing photography, I put everything in boxes, and threw a ton of stuff away. I was afraid of looking at it for a good 20 years.”
With the passage of time, Rivera became able to reconnect to the past without the same anxiety and fear, recognizing his photographs were all that remained of a disappeared city.
“You can never go back to your past,” he says. “Our LA is gone — not just that it got torn down and the young people moved in — but that what made it ours, like our generations, is over. We got to experience the last remnants of City of Night, the John Rechy novel. The LA of ‘80s was super violent, dangerous, and free. There’s a certain amount of danger in freedom. Freedom is dangerous.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
Reynaldo Rivera: Provisional Notes from a Disappeared City
Published by Semiotext(e)
Made in L.A. 2020: a version
Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90024, USA
More information here.