Photography Aimee Santos

By Evan Moffitt

Los Angeles, John Rechy writes in his classic novel City of Night (1963), “is the last stop before the sun gives up and sinks into the black, black ocean.” When Reynaldo Rivera arrived in L.A. in 1978, by way of Mexicali, Mexico, and Stockton, California, he found a place he’d later recognize in Rechy’s description of a down-and-out town full of hustlers, drag queens, junkies and thieves. He’d grown up fast, doing seasonal work in the farms and factories of California’s Central Valley when he was as young as 14. When he first picked up a camera, a year later, it gave him a new way of seeing and recording the world around him, from the weather-beaten rooming houses where he stayed with his father in Stockton and L.A. to the punk shows he attended throughout the 1980s.

Most remarkable are photographs Rivera took in the dressing rooms of Latino drag bars such as La Plaza, Club Mugy’s and the Silverlake Lounge, many of them gone now or simply faded into desuetude. Transgender women apply makeup and shimmy into tight dresses, most paying no mind to the camera. Rivera manages to make these images feel both vulnerable and glamorous. Their soft, black-and-white light recalls the photographs of Diane Arbus or Brassaï, but with an added layer of intimacy that reassures us that these women, like Rivera, are among friends. Along with heart-rending images of house parties that Rivera threw with friends and siblings in early 1990s Echo Park, they were recently featured in the Made in L.A. 2020 biennial at The Hammer Museum and The Huntington Library, and a selection will be on view at Reena Spaulings, New York. They’ve also been collected in a book, published by Semiotext(e) and distributed by MIT Press in 2020, that Rivera titled Provisional Notes for a Disappeared City. More than perhaps any other artist, Rivera is the chronicler of a lost Los Angeles, a place that was gritty but free.

EVAN MOFFITT: How did you first start taking photographs as a teenager? What were you photographing then?

REYNALDO RIVERA: I started taking pictures of the cleaning ladies at this hotel in Stockton, California, that my dad and I used to live in. I bought my camera from my dad; he used to sell stolen shit. I think he charged me like $160 for it, which was a ton of money.

MOFFITT: How did you make the money to pay for it?

RIVERA: I was a migrant field worker with my dad, and then I started working at a cannery that made the tomato paste that went into Campbell’s Soup. Film was fucking expensive and I didn’t even know how to use the camera, so every time I would bring in my little roll of film to the Fotomat, nothing would come out. The lady who worked there would ask if my f-stop or shutter speed was correct. That’s how I learned what all those knobs were for, and things started coming out a little bit at a time. One of the first people I photographed was this old granny, Minnie, who used to clean the hotel. She was in her seventies. I photographed her in the hallway of the hotel, which was from the 1800s. The walls had this dark stain. Mrs. Minnie got all the cleaning girls who worked with her to sit for me. At that time, I was just about to leave the gang world and start my new life. I came out around the same time, a couple years after I got my camera. I went from gangs to New Wave.

MOFFITT: That sounds like a lucky transition.

RIVERA: It was, because all the folks I was around in my late teens were artsy, and I was lucky that none of them cared about me coming out. Going from a girlfriend to a boyfriend, no one gave a fuck. And that was cool.

MOFFITT: Even if you didn’t know how to work a camera right away, it seemed like you had really clear instincts about how to frame a photograph. What kind of images were you thinking about? Can you tell me about some of your earliest influences?

RIVERA: Well, Stockton was a fuckhole on earth. Boring as fuck. The only thing to do there is to get drunk, drugged, mugged and murdered. But I discovered this bookstore run by an old Filipina lady who would let me take boxes of books for a dollar. I read ferociously. Old movie classics magazines from the 1910s, ’20s, ’30s, and books on photography. I got that stuff before I got the camera. So silent movies were an influence.

MOFFITT: There’s real glamour to your photographs, especially the dressing room photographs, in which you catch queens in a moment of transformation. They’re also very flattering. They show these women how they want to be seen.

RIVERA: They were actresses in my movie, so of course I wasn’t going to make them look bad. I saw them as larger than life. But they were illusionists, not queens. People weren’t allowed in their changing rooms because that’s where the illusion happened, so it was a bit like a magician giving up his tricks.

MOFFITT: How did you convince them to let you take pictures there?

RIVERA: I befriended Miss Alex first. She was an interesting character from this little village in Mexico, Alvarado. One night when she was just a kid, this busload of transvestites who were on a tour went to her village. After the performance, they went to the local park to suck dick, and the townspeople chased them out. As they were running to the bus, Miss Alex—she was just a young teenage boy then—decided to run off with them. They ended up in Mexico City, where she became really well known in the 1980s. She had a regular column in one of Mexico’s most important papers, La Journada. She was a very multifaceted gal. She came to the U.S. because she was following her bodybuilder boyfriend, who dumped her ass here in L.A., and she stayed.

One day I went to see a show at the Silverlake Lounge with a friend of mine who was visiting from Mexico City, and he turns to me and says, “Oh my god, do you know who that is?” He told me about how famous she was in Mexico, and how everyone there had been reading her “Letters from Hollywood.” If they only knew that this was the Hollywood she was talking about. I interviewed her around 1991, and befriended her, and so she brought me in. Once I was in the dressing room, I was able to move around without too much trouble. I did photos there for a few years, and then someone told the girls that I was selling these photos for a ton of money and wasn’t giving them anything, though at the time I wasn’t selling shit. The irony is, that’s happening now, 30 years later, and unfortunately most of them are gone. Miss Alex died a long time ago. Olga, Paloma… all those gals are gone. 

MOFFITT: When you were 19, you got a job as a janitor at LA Weekly, and used that gig to get into concerts, where you photographed bands like Souisxie and the Banshees and Sonic Youth.

RIVERA: I worked for the Weekly as a janitor. I befriended all these people who worked there. I was dating Craig Lee, the music critic. Gloria Ohland did their fashion stuff, and I would make up these fake fashion trends and photograph them and she would publish them as “the latest fashion trend in L.A.,” so I could make some money. If there was a band in town I liked, I would tell Craig I wanted to take photos of them, and he would go interview them and I would take the photos.

MOFFITT: They don’t look like other concert photos, though — they’re very intimate.

RIVERA: Well, I was documenting this stuff for myself. They had to fit into my movie. I shot a bunch of film of all this stuff, too. The show at the Hammer Museum had a movie in it. I shot video of a lot of the drag performances. At the time I thought that people were going to want to see what these performances were actually like. I’m editing a movie now which will be part of my show in New York, and it’s going to be a day in the life of a city. Two hours of what this city was like in the late eighties and early nineties.

MOFFITT: L.A. has changed almost beyond recognition since those days. In your recent book, you wrote that “In a city that reinvents itself with every new generation, one has to leave breadcrumbs to be able to find the way back.” What are your breadcrumbs? Is there really a way back to the L.A. we’ve lost?

RIVERA: No. That’s what the title of my book, Provisional Notes for a Disappeared City, is about. I’m thinking about the fact that you can never go back. Neighborhoods get obliterated overnight here. Nothing is sacred in Los Angeles. Yes, we have an actual historical society, but they have very little power. When you leave a city, people always want to come back to that place they left, and it’s never that place when you get back.

MOFFITT: I grew up in Los Feliz, and since I moved to New York, whenever I go back to L.A., especially around Silverlake, Los Feliz, Echo Park — I just don’t recognize it anymore. On some blocks, there isn’t a single place that I recognize.

RIVERA: That’s exactly what I mean. Leaving breadcrumbs to know where that café used to be, because the building’s gone. In some cases, even the streets are gone.

MOFFITT: Your negatives are your breadcrumbs, in a way.

RIVERA: You’re right. They’re time machines. They freeze time — in the way you saw it, of course, because photography is biased according to your own vision.

MOFFITT: Has your creative vision changed as L.A. has changed?

RIVERA: You know, every city has its personal light. Light is everything in photography. Los Angeles really was that City of Night, like the book by John Rechy. Film noir started here because the city really lends itself to that atmosphere and lighting. I felt that L.A. had that quality, and now that’s gone. I feel like I’m chasing those spaces that are disappearing in front of my very eyes, spaces that still have that old lighting that only reveals itself through photography. I’m still looking for remnants of that city of night.

All these new waves of suburbanites who have moved here have really lit up this city. Yes, things are safer than they were when I was a teenager, when L.A. was considered one of the most dangerous cities in the country. But we had freedom that you can’t even imagine. And freedom is dangerous. I feel like I’m one of the last generations to know true freedom: before the internet, cell phone cameras everywhere. Freedom works in the dark. In these spaces that are not being recorded. You can’t really be free when you have people watching you. A couple years ago, I got stopped by the police in Echo Park, and they said, “You know, we just passed a curfew in the park.” It was like 10 o’clock. All the gays used to get laid in the park, but not anymore, because they lit that thing up like a fucking birthday cake. I live in the city so I can be wherever I want, including a park, at any fucking hour of the day or night. Otherwise, I’d be living in Pacoima.

Published: October 30, 2021

Kiss Me Deadly” was on view at Reena Spaulings Fine Art, 165 East Broadway, through November 21, 2021.