Ricardo Rivera in Conversation with Stephen Frailey
Stephen Frailey: Your work is inventive and playful and has a distinct sense of texture and mood. But what is also notable is, especially as a fashion photograph, is how you have braided your cultural background into the work, although often as a form of trope, a stereotype. Could you please elaborate on this?
Ricardo Rivera: For me when it comes to a fashion photograph I need more than just fashion and I naturally have a deep attraction for textures and color because of my cultural background; my upbringing in the banana republic: Honduras. I grew up surrounded by this rich mix of vibrant textures and patterns in my everyday life and this brings me to these unexpected juxtapositions of mundane – and sometimes stereotypical – objects from Latin life, like tropical flora and fruit (particularly bananas) or things you find in an outdoor market like cheap plastic objects or adorned backdrops often hand in hand with a luxury piece from a fashion house like a Balenciaga handbag or Fendi sunglasses. I just do what feels right, what I know best and feels genuine to me.
Frailey: It would seem as if you do not consider ‘stereotype’ as a negative, as a form of cartoon, but as a valid part of cultural identity.
Rivera: There is a fine line with stereotypes. As I mentioned before, when it comes to color, textures and objects or even mood; sure! I am as tied to my Latin roots as can be. But in some other cases, if anything, I try to subvert some of those stereotypes which sometimes -sadly- can be very real in Honduras (as I dare to say in most of Latin America). For example, trying to redefine the idea of masculinity, which is this very antiquated strong sense and expectancy of an exaggerated virility; of how a man is a “macho” and what that is supposed to mean: a misrepresentation of how to be, act and look like. I prefer to show another side, a more delicate and sensitive side.
Frailey: Do you have any strong thoughts about cultural appropriation? It is such a flash point for disagreement about creative license; does your background give you an authority that I would not have, for instance, or is it insight?
Rivera: I don’t like the term of cultural appropriation because, to start with, it portrays the idea of stealing, unfairly taking something that is foreign to you or that it might just belong to anyone just to take. Work in any creative endeavor doesn’t necessarily need to show any cultural context whatsoever; but in the cases where the author of such works deliberately chooses to showcase or reference any cultural element, it is essential for it to be respectful and of real interest. And in those cases, when it’s truly genuine to one person’s framework of life experiences, likes and dislikes; that’s when it’s honestly interesting and unique. In a way that is more than just following trends, thus, distancing yourself from unnecessary clutter. More importantly, it also brings in truly, much-needed diversity; especially when it involves any minority groups, like Latinos and blacks. In that sense, cultural assimilation by choice brings insight into the appreciation of a certain culture, in order to showcase innate means of artistic creativity.
Frailey: Your work is very lavish, and part of the sense of place (which is one of the aspects of culture) is light. I’m struck by the light in your work—warm and reflective sometimes but also deep shadows, silhouettes, darkness. Has your thinking about light changed in the last few years?
Rivera: Thank you, Stephen! Like you mentioned, to render a sense of place is significant to me. When it comes to creating my images, an understanding of light, especially when in the studio, reinforces those elements that emulate a sense of place. Light is instrumental to create a specific atmosphere and together with set design and props, it all comes together. I like to think that my idea of light has been consistent in many ways in the last few years: warm and soft light yet with emphasis on the areas which lack light, creating hard shadows or even silhouettes. What may have evolved is moving from an idea of brighter, saturated colors and exposure to an overall darker tonal range; which is closer to my own personal viewpoint now. In my head, light and color should transmit that “real life” tangible feel to the images; the grit, instead of a clinical glossy look.
Frailey: The photographs have a slight sense of the past—of history. Are there particular figures from photographic history, fashion or otherwise, that have been inspirational to you? Any photographers from Latin America that we might not be familiar with?
Rivera: I wonder if that sense of past and history has something to do with the familiar impression of stillness, calm, and “quietness” the subjects in my images have; which in a way, I can connect to my appreciation for the formality behind old portrait paintings.
Furthermore, I look up to artists like Kehinde Wiley and Barkley Hendricks and how they, in different ways, quote these historic aspects of old traditional painting and portraiture, but in their very own, unique and modern way. Frida Kahlo’s still life paintings are also some of my favorites and I like to think of them as the Latin American version of traditional European food still lifes with a color sensibility and fruits, as subjects which are easily relatable.
When it comes to fashion photography specifically, from the beginning, Tim Walker’s fantasy world and unmatchable ability to be a storyteller has always been a big inspiration. I also can never get tired of looking at the beautiful portraiture of both Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta and the charm behind their subjects, the exuberant dress styles and the correlation with sets. For a Latin photographer, even though she is very well known, I should mention Graciela Iturbide and her iconic, Nuestra Señora de Las Iguanas image and the magnolias.
Frailey: Now that you mention it, it’s useful to note the extent to which the work is still life; your fluency with objects. Is it a challenge to locate garments that reinforce your sensibility?
Rivera: I love objects and still life in my images as much as I have a passion for garments, a strong interest for the fashion element. I enjoy creating a theme for my pictures and shoots, which is heavily supported by the clothing and accessories. My experience is that, yes, it can be challenging to search and obtain the clothes you dream of to work with; but definitely not an obstacle. I tend to adapt and be resourceful whenever it’s necessary. I remember telling you this story when I first met you, of how back in the day when I first ventured in photography back in Honduras, I would even get things custom made; sometimes in a not so traditional way, per say. Having these extravagant shoes done by a local upholsterer that had nothing to do with shoemaking and probably thought I was a little crazy.
When it comes to navigating through fashion I’ve also been lucky to work with great stylists. For example, my friend and stylist Lutfi Janania, also New York-based Honduran, with whom I’ve collaborated closely for about a decade now.
Ricardo Rivera is a New York based creative director and photographer.