Reynaldo Rivera didn’t pick up a camera with the intention of making art. The Yashica he retrieved from a pile of his father’s things was a way of bringing order to a peripatetic life that had him bouncing between the care of his mother, his grandmother and his father, between Mexicali and Los Angeles, between Stockton and San Diego de la Unión, a small, agricultural outpost in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato.
“I did it out of this need to have something stable in my life,” he says. “Photography makes time stand still. And for someone who has had a crazy life, hectic and moving (I left home when I was very young), it gave me some kind of normalcy. … It allowed me to freeze time in moments that were special to me, and I was able to relive them over and over.”
Those frozen moments are the slivers of Los Angeles of the 1980s and ‘90s, pieces of city that no longer exist or have been rendered unrecognizable.
For Rivera’s L.A. was a city of $300 apartments and low-budget art happenings. It was a singer roaring into a mic at a house party. It was a turbaned performer swaddled in feathers, staring imperiously at the camera.
These intersecting worlds all materialize in the artist’s beguiling new photographic monograph, “Reynaldo Rivera: Provisional Notes for a Disappeared City,” published by Semiotext(e) last month. Its images also make an appearance in the Hammer Museum’s biennial, “Made in L.A. 2020: a version,” which has yet to open due to the pandemic. (Rivera’s photos, along with a video piece, are featured in the biennial’s parallel shows installed at the Hammer and at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens.)
The book gathers 190 images from Rivera’s early career, a time when he was avidly recording his milieu for no purpose other than his own. Rivera photographed artists, writers and curators hamming it up at apartment parties, post-punk bands rocking club stages and Latino drag queens and trans performers in shining gowns putting on resplendent floor shows in old-school Silver Lake bars. It’s a milieu that, like Los Angeles, is largely Latino — straddling both sides of a border along with its in-between states.
Rivera, whose career has been as peripatetic as his life, has shown his work infrequently. But as L.A. has evolved and the neighborhoods he once frequented have been gentrified — and the Latino presence in those neighborhoods has been overwritten — he says he felt an urgency to publish a record of the city as it once was.
“To find things about Latinos, you have to read other people’s footnotes,” he says. “I wanted a book about us in L.A. where we are not the footnote.”