The Reservoir

Conversations on Photography

there was an energy that was almost too big to handle, like a huge wave that we’d been holding back.


Lissa Rivera, Blue Room, 2017, from the series Beautiful Boy.
Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York.

A little over two years ago, The Ones We Love invited us to interview each other. Although we had already been working on the project together for over a year at that point, we were only just beginning to share the work publicly. Unaware of how exactly the work would be looked at or received, we discussed the ways that taking photographs together had transformed our relationships to ourselves and to each other. In the years since, the work has been shown around the world and written about in dozens of publications. Together and separately, we have engaged in thousands of conversations, with friends, family, and the wider public, over dinner or on stage. At the same time, we have continued to take photos, adding a wide range of new photographs and ideas to our original body of work. In the end, however, our core concerns have not changed: we continue to step-inside the images that we find most alluring, to examine what it is like to live each scenario out, and to explore the interstices between boy and girl, man and woman—as well as the pleasures and perils of looking and being looked at.

Lissa Rivera & BJ Lillis, March 2018


Lissa Rivera (clockwise from top left), Study in Red and Yellow, 2015.; Portrait with Symbols II, 2015; Boudoir, 2015, (all) from the series Beautiful Boy. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York.

December 28, 2015

Lissa Rivera    How did it feel taking the first pictures?

BJ Lillis    The thing that stands out to me the most is that I felt this instant sense of trust and openness. I didn't have to worry about anything, I didn't have to present myself in any particular way, and I could just relax and let things happen. I had cross-dressed before, but it was never something that was captured so I could see it. It wasn't really something that I thought of as being possible to capture or to photograph. When I saw the first pictures I was so happy. I looked just how I imagined.

Lissa    A question I heard recently from a friend is why do you dress more conservatively in your daily life than in the photos? How I have come to interpret it is that you are actually a very reserved person in many ways and that the photos are a safe place for us to experiment with presenting in a way that would draw a lot of attention in public.

BJ    It’s true that in my daily life I am not really interested in drawing attention to myself. But I don’t think everyone realizes how difficult it can be—even in very liberal environments—picking a bathroom, riding the subway, stopping in the grocery store on the way home; things like this can be really challenging. Gender ambiguity makes a lot of people really uncomfortable.
Also, just because I want to present in a feminine way a lot of the time does not mean I don’t want to present in a more masculine way sometimes. I grew up a boy and I feel very comfortable presenting myself that way. It’s important to me to be both masculine and feminine. If I go too long in one gender I start to feel really frozen and constrained.

Lissa    It makes me think about how until the 1920s or 30s, which is really quite recent, women in pants would be seen as scandalous or at least tomboyish. It was outsider behavior.

In college I know you felt more comfortable wearing dresses and skirts, but after moving to the city and getting a full-time job it became more of an at-home thing. I feel that recently you have been able to open up more and wear more feminine clothing in public. How has the project changed your relationship to your self-image?

BJ    I definitely feel a lot more confident about myself and how I look. I think that when we started I was still really struggling with not just my self-image but with my gender identity and what it meant to have this desire to be feminine and to look feminine. I felt that I had to figure out, like, am I a trans person? What would that mean? Am I a cross-dresser? What terminology should I use?
The project really freed me to understand that gender is not necessarily this deep-seated, static identity, but that it is actually something that I do. My gender can constantly change and evolve, and it is it totally coherent and consistent to explore many different ways of presenting gender. It really freed me to relax and be myself and be in my own body without worrying about how it all fit together, just going with it and trying to do things that feel good or look beautiful or are exciting to me.

Lissa    I feel that the project has really changed my self-image as well. As a young woman, I idolized stylized depictions of femininity. Shooting Beautiful Boy has given me the space to express the ideals and images that I have archived in my mind as a woman outside of myself, in a controlled scenario. It relieves my own inability to fully inhabit that space.

As a young child, I remember being suspicious of how gender is constructed, seeing it happening and feeling like an outsider to it. I think that this awareness came across to other children. I was bullied for being a lesbian, although I have never been in a romantic relationship with another woman—being with you is the closest I have ever been. I just didn't perform my gender as seamlessly as others.

Lissa Rivera (clockwise from top), Study with Chairs I, 2016; Untitled (Street Scene), 2016; Untitled (Persimmon Dress), 2016, (all) from the series Beautiful Boy. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York.

Before the project, you told me that you still didn't fully understand what dressing in women's clothes meant for you. I told you that I had a similar relationship to my body that had nothing to do with cross-dressing—a self-consciousness I felt as a woman. I felt like I had come up with these different outfits, costumes really, with different meanings for different situations. Through watching movies, listening to music and looking at magazines, I had learned techniques for being a woman that I could share.

Another thing that has influenced me is being part of the historical photography community. Looking at archival material, one can witness the evolution of gender ideals and self-presentation through photographic technology.

BJ    One thing I gained from this was access to your store of knowledge about photography and art history. You have this tremendous knowledge about different ways that people have looked at these questions in the past that I can look at and think about and then act out. It’s really helped me.

Lissa    I think that because of my own struggle from being a more passive child to being an assertive woman who rejects femininity in a way, but also loves femininity and loves the aesthetics of femininity and the history of those aesthetics, I saw how that history could be collaged together and used as a language. By sharing that language with you, it has been very revealing for myself. Why am I attracted to certain things and not others? Putting my makeup on you, I see how it doesn’t make you look better, just different. Now I relax on the makeup for myself. It's helped me to let go.

BJ    In our society that there is so much pressure around gender presentation in so many different directions: in the media, friends, coworkers, family; everyone puts pressures on each other to live up to these different ideas about gender and to act them out in certain ways. For us, I think that this project has become this huge pressure release valve, where all of that pressure to be feminine can be channeled into this really healthy experimentation. It leaves us free to just relax in our personal lives and not have to perform.

Lissa    The work is very much a product of our fantasies.
BJ    It’s fantasy, but the fantasy is reality. The performance of gender is reality.

Lissa    It's also an experiment in surrealism. I am influenced by early color fashion photography that is a product of the surrealist movement and modernism, photographers like Paul Outerbridge and Madame Yevonde. I am interested in Surrealism and how different symbols related to gender and sexuality were broken down. We are using that language. I’m also interested the language of theater and cinema, for example the films of Josef von Sternberg with Marlene Dietrich, how his aesthetics and her performance broke down the language of gender on film.

BJ    We are creating this set of images that we have a really important personal relationship to, each coming at it from very different angles, but at the same time we are really doing it together. We each bring something to it and each take something personal out of it. I think that one thing that the photo shoots have done is create a lot empathy between us, where we are used to looking at each other and working with each other and seeing what we are each bringing.


February 28, 2018

Lissa Rivera, Emerald Living Room (Portrait as Wife), 2017, from the series Beautiful Boy.
Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York.

BJ    Since the first phase of the project, we’ve moved from shooting mostly in the studio to shooting mostly on location. How is shooting on location different from shooting in the studio?

Lissa    Shooting indoors was a great place to start, because we had total privacy, and I was able to get out some ideas that had been stirring inside of me for years. I was working to distill these ideas into archetypes or motifs.

It was helpful for you and I to learn to work together in this intimate way. However, shooting in our small apartment began to feel confining. It was really exciting to plan a shoot around a particular location and then hop in the car or on a plane to travel to a place we had only occupied in our imagination. The locations were all very meaningful and carefully chosen, having to do with the original concepts we were exploring, still focusing on the home and domesticity, although the homes were not our own.
BJ    Is it a different creative process to be on location?

Lissa    Yes, it is. I have a lot of experience photographing interiors, and I’m very interested in identity as projected through inanimate objects. Often a person’s identity is reflected in their home, or in the private and public spaces they occupy. I like the challenge of entering into a space and solving the jigsaw puzzle of placing your performance, costumes, and styling within the interior. When possible, we spend the night on location and really immerse ourselves in the feelings that it emits.

I’m interested in control and lack of control when it comes to identity construction. Often times one’s fantasy of their ideal self can be most fully realized in the isolation of the home. Outside, the guise is subject to judgement—yet that control can also lead to a more damaging, personal kind of isolation.
BJ    It’s interesting, too, because we’ve shot in our own home, and when we did that we were ourselves focused on creating our idealized fantasies in this controlled, safe environment. Then, when we go on site, we’re in a less comfortable situation for ourselves, and have to put ourselves out there a little—especially when, as is sometimes the case, we have limited time to shoot or there are other people in the building. But that insecurity or challenge gives us the chance to explore other people’s personal spaces, to get into places that others have constructed out of their own fantasies, to fit their own lives—it becomes less an exercise in self-discovery and more an exercise in empathy. So it allows us to really go a level deeper, exploring the experiences of others for ourselves.

How has success affected your work? Has showing the work changed how you
yourself see it?

Lissa Rivera (from top), Yellow Corsage (Dream Lover), 2017; Pink Bedroom (for Priscilla), 2017, (both) from the series Beautiful Boy. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York.

Lissa    I feel as if the success of the work exists in an alternate reality, kind of like when you hear people talking while you’re underwater. When people tell me that they’ve seen my work, I feel very disconnected and surprised. When I make the work, it still comes from the same place, and I don’t feel like the inclusion of an audience has affected that place. The initial round of press caused me to dissociate a little from my personal life, as the work is so personal and private in a lot of ways—but I have learned how to disassociate from my public life instead and been able to reclaim my privacy.

Have any comments or feedback from others really affected you, negatively or positively?

BJ    It has been interesting meeting some of the men, or people who present themselves pretty straightforwardly as men, who tell me that they really relate to the work in a deep or personal way, or that it has helped them feel more comfortable with their feminine side. It is both really satisfying to know you’ve had some kind of impact on someone, however small, and also a reminder that you can’t necessarily tell how someone feels from how they present themselves—which I should know, given how much of my life I spent and still sometimes spend dressed or presenting myself in a way that would give someone no hints whatsoever about the complexities of my relationship to gender—and yet I still make assumptions about other people based on how they look! I guess we just can’t help it as humans, but I try not to.

The political situation in the United States has changed pretty dramatically in the last couple of years—how has this impacted the work, if it all? Do you think the work reads or speaks differently in the present moment than it did in the Obama years?

Lissa    I have to admit, the election was a huge blow. I had felt that freedom of expression and a certain valuing of the feminine and fluidity had been accelerating in a positive direction; I didn’t expect to see the violence against it surface in such a virulent way. I felt personal pain. It was a wake up call, but at the same time, I saw it coming to some degree, as I have seen the pendulum of acceptance swing throughout history. Now, the pace and quality of progress is not as certain, but it is no less important.

That said, our work tends to speak to who you would least expect—a lot of people who you might imagine would support us don’t particularly, and a lot of people who you might think are on the “wrong side” have expressed empathy and understanding and a change in their perception from connecting to our work. It’s important to keep exploring these ideas in as honest a way as possible.

BJ    Who was the last artist you discovered that really affected you or changed how you saw art making?

Lissa    Probably Andrei Tarkovsky. His films had a big impact on the last set of shoots we did, which aren’t yet public.

How does it feel to have your image on billboards on the street and in the New York City subway, in newspapers, and online?

BJ    I guess it doesn’t really feel real, even when you see it in front of your face. I am much more interested in the process of making the art than of sharing it. At the same time, it is a real thrill! It is a good feeling, to see yourself on display in such beautiful photos, to get compliments from other people on them—it’s hard to describe, really. But then it’s like going down a waterslide, you get to the bottom and the ride is over and you walk over to the next one, or to the ice cream stand, or whatever—you get a rush each time, but by the time you get home it’s onto the next thing; it doesn’t have a lasting impact. Making the work, on the other hand, is transformative. You feel its effects for days or weeks or even permanently; it expands your mind or your range of being.

Lissa    Does it feel satisfying to be in a creative partnership with me as well as a romantic partnership?

BJ    Yeah, of course! They are similar and different, creative and romantic partnerships—but they both combine the anodyne and the thrilling, and they both elevate both kinds of experiences. The experience of watching a movie is elevated by being with someone you love, and elevated again by talking through it from an artistic or creative perspective—and then again by drawing on it to make something. Or to take something even more mundane, a long drive is elevated by being with your romantic partner, from drudgery to adventure, and it’s elevated again by being on your way to make something or do something creative—from an adventure to a quest!

Lissa Rivera, Aloha Motel, Palm Springs, 2017, from the series Beautiful Boy.
Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York.

Lissa    At first, besides the original The Ones We Love article, I was answering all press requests on my own, though I quickly discovered that I should never answer for you; I would always consult with you if anyone had a direct question about your gender identity or role. Now, you join in press interviews and lectures whenever possible. The first time you joined me for a portfolio review, the reviewer seemed almost shocked to have the subject present—now, it’s come to be a part of the identity of the work. How does it feel for you as a muse to be so much a part of the presentation of Beautiful Boy?

BJ    It’s great to have a voice and be able to share my perspective! I love talking about your work, and I also enjoy sharing my own experiences with an audience—I have found that people are usually interested in what I have to say and often can relate to it. Furthermore, as a historian engaging the public and conveying ideas about the past, about culture and history, in ways that others can connect to is central to what I do and what I would like to do in the future, so this has been great practice, in a sense, and also of course a good fit with my own interests.

I also love drawing attention to the work of past muses and models in history and challenging preconceptions about who is active and who is passive in making a work of art. But in the end, I see it as your work, your baby, your vision. I am proud of my contribution to the work, but there is a great deal of freedom in having it not be your own work, actually.
There is a great deal of freedom in not being the “author.” I get to focus on my part, without worrying so much about the whole. I get to inhabit my role without keeping any part of my mind on the bigger picture, just completely burrowing into the process of being photographed and of existing in three-dimensional space in a way that will somehow translate into a two-dimensional image without losing that feeling of the third dimension, or the feeling of time passing.

You have been working as a curator for over a year now. Has working behind the scenes putting together shows changed how you view your own art practice? Do you feel that you draw on your experience as an artist when you curate, or are they really separate in your mind?

Lissa    They’re really separate, though I have gained a deeper appreciation for the practices of others. I get to look deeply into methodologies that would be a challenge to me. It allows me to create deeper relationships with artists and curators I admire, and it pushes me to challenge my perception on work that I didn’t quite connect to at first. Instead of wishing there was an exhibition, you can just make it happen! And have access to all these incredible treasures.

BJ    Now that our relationship is a little older, how is it different making work? Does our work relate differently to our relationship compared to when both were very new?

Lissa    Well, when we started the work it was something of a secret, and at the same time we were really both coming out as being different people than perhaps other people in our lives had perceived us. We were at once finding an exciting new level of honesty, while at the same time confronting the fear—or the reality, really—that by living for other peoples’ expectations of ourselves, we had never felt truly loved, although we had been trying to be everything that someone else wanted us to be. There was a fear of letting those around us down, but it was no way to live. Now, I feel that the possibilities for really living life have become almost infinite.

BJ    I agree—in a lot of ways, the early work was like a fever dream. We were just obsessed with each other. I was obsessed with being photographed, you were obsessed with photographing me—there was an energy that was almost too big to handle, like a huge wave that we’d been holding back. Now, I feel a much greater sense of stability and calm, and in exchange for that energy, we have the ability to access some kind of deeper connection or level of communication. I think that you can see this in the later work compared to the earlier work, where the kaleidoscopic backdrops and costumes and reinventions of the work we shot at home give way to work like what we shot in Italy—a sustained meditation on the themes that interest us, a deeper experience of place and time.  


Lissa Rivera    is a photographer and curator based in Brooklyn. Rivera received her MFA from the School of Visual Arts, where she became fascinated with the social history of photography and the evolution of identity, sexuality and gender in relationship to material culture. Among many other honors and awards, Rivera was chosen as a “Woman to Watch” for the biennial exhibition at the National Museum of Woman in Arts.  Rivera is represented by ClampArt, New York. 

In addition to being Lissa Rivera’s partner, model and muse,    BJ Lillis    is currently a doctoral student in history at Princeton University, studying colonial American history with a focus on slavery, servitude and other forms of unfree labor, and the history of gender and sexuality. Lillis previously worked as a Curatorial Assistant at the Museum of the City of New York.