MARCH 10, 2021
“HOW DOES ONE stage utopia?” asks queer theorist and Latinx studies scholar José Esteban Muñoz in the opening of a chapter on Kevin McCarty’s photographs of Los Angeles queer club stages in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. For Muñoz, the queer utopian impulse — “that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough” — can be witnessed in the quotidian practices of queer living, a privileged site for the expression of a queer aesthetic that “frequently contains blueprints and schemata of a forward-dawning futurity.” Muñoz examines how McCarty’s photographs of empty Los Angeles bars and nightclubs like those of Spaceland or Catch One reflect stagings of queer utopianism that are “both temporal and spatial, one in which potentiality, hope, and the future could be, should be, and would be enacted.” It is in the quotidian aesthetic, Muñoz claims, that we find utopia and craft queer futurities that the present may not realize. The ordinary is where it’s at.
Whereas McCarty’s photographs of Los Angeles bars show the emptied stages of queer nightlife, the work of Mexican American photographer Reynaldo Rivera peoples them with the everyday performers and patrons that make them what they are. Rivera’s photographs of Los Angeles queer and trans nightlife, house parties, and underground fashion are collected in Provisional Notes for a Disappeared City, recently published by Semtiotext(e). The volume contains almost 200 photographs, an opening essay by Chris Kraus combined with Rivera’s memories of the people and places he photographed, an email correspondence with legendary performance artist Vaginal Davis, and a feature story on performer Tatiana Volty by Luis Bauz. The black-and-white photos, and Rivera’s accompanying memories throughout, chronicle the photographer’s early career, a period defined by familial instability and journeying between Mexico and California. “I got to choose the people I wanted, and I would photograph them however I wanted,” Rivera recalls of those early years. “They looked like art photos, as opposed to commercial photography. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t thinking, oh, I’m doing this for my career, to put on my resume, so I can sell it — I’m doing this for myself. Photography, for me, was that space between reality and make believe.” What emerges from these years of casual photography is a picture of queer and trans Los Angeles community and culture in the last decades of the 20th century.
Most of the photos in Provisional Notes for a Disappeared City are of the everyday performers and patrons that moved through Los Angeles’s multi-ethnic queer bars and clubs such as Silverlake Lounge, La Plaza, and Mugi’s. Other photos in the collection were taken at house parties in Echo Park, featuring up-and-coming local artists, performers, and singers — including Francesco Siqueiros, Alicia Armendariz, and Roberto Gil de Montes, among others — whom Rivera met through his cousin, Trizia. Many of Rivera’s subjects are trans and, as he points out in his notes, no longer with us. Rivera recalls that, at his first exhibition in 1995, he chose not to use the word “transvestite” in descriptions in order to refuse “the sensationalism” the term signaled. “They were beautiful photos of performers, who were performing. There’s a whole social layer going on, behind this,” Rivera recalls, demonstrating an attentiveness and sensitivity to the ways in which the visual image of trans people are often exploited. “When I photographed these people, I was just documenting a moment that I found beautiful and interesting.” Rivera’s photographic aesthetic shies away from the sensationalism, and even high theatricality, of his subjects, opting instead for the more muted, everyday moments he witnessed backstage: performers applying makeup or waiting in line to use the bathroom. These aesthetic choices reflect Rivera’s view of these photographs as documenting a working class, multi-ethnic, and Latinx Los Angeles. “[A]ll these neighborhoods were ethnically diverse,” Rivera recalls, adding that “most of us were poor, but then again we were living in a different time, where you could live with a minimum wage job.” According to Rivera, this archive performs a future tense recalling: “one big movie” composed of an amalgam of black-and-white photos, the monochromatic color scheme suggesting a time gone by, something old-school. This work is especially pertinent for Latinx people in Los Angeles, as Rivera emphasizes, because it rewrites that common script of feeling like “we just got here,” mapping and restoring the presence of Latinx life in the story of the US Southwest. Queer Latinx life was once here, in this form, the images remind us — a fact with which present-day readers must reckon.
This is why Rivera’s positing of these photos as a “document” is a compelling way to view them. They are evidence of past lives and places. “[I] was determined to find beauty in places deemed ugly,” Rivera explains, “or maybe I was just documenting the way that beauty can live side by side with violence and the ugliness of life, society and this country, a country that let millions of us die in the most inhumane way.” Yet Rivera’s documentary photographs and the tone of the essays and correspondence included in the book are not overtly elegiac, the typical approach for many accounts of queer and trans of color life as AIDS and gentrification displaced our communities. Rivera’s photos are not sensationalized depictions for an imagined cisgender, heterosexual, or white audience à la Paris Is Burning. Nor are they representations of anger or frustration. Rivera’s photographs embark upon a different kind of work for representing queer and trans of color life. They document an affective and aesthetic register of the impressively unimpressive: performers backstage getting ready; drunken posing for the camera at a house party; a sibling photoshoot. These are the images of everyday living, of commonplace Polaroids, of the ordinary that was a prior iteration of queer Latinx Los Angeles.
Accounts of queer and trans people of color’s lives in mainstream culture typically center on narrative presentations of trauma, theatricality, and racialized liveness. I have elsewhere written on the limitations of narrative stakes and demands in relation to queer and trans of color life as portrayed in Paris Is Burning, arguing that we might allocate some of our aesthetic attention to the ordinary and banal, the everyday joys and pleasures preserved only as deleted scenes. Rivera’s photography avoids this common representational quagmire, allowing us to make of them what we will, reading their immediate context (such as the title) and, if so inclined, researching the historical, geographical, aesthetic, and political dimensions in which they are enmeshed. By bringing into focus the joy, smiles, raucousness, contemplation, zaniness, pleasure, and overall human ordinariness of his subjects, Rivera’s photographs are free to be different from trauma, sensationalism, pain, excessive liveliness, or suffering.
Two photographs of unidentified performers at the Silverlake Lounge taken in 1995 encapsulate Rivera’s impressively unimpressive aesthetic. In these two shots, like so many of the others, Rivera seemingly impresses upon his subjects an added layer of quotidian sparkle, as if his lens is predisposed to heighten the everydayness of the subject and the environment in which they find themselves. In the first, a performer smirks brightly at the camera. She’s slightly hunched over, her hair tied back in a ponytail, adorned with modest necklace and earrings. Looking closely, one notices how an earring appears to be in movement as if the photographer has hailed her attention. Over here, Rivera must say, as the performer turns quickly to look at him with her piqued curiosity, her lips smacked together as if readying a quip, preparing to reprimand Rivera for distracting her from getting ready or bothering her after a long night performing. The second performer dons a blonde wig, dark lipstick, and a simple monochromatic dress. She is plainness itself, really, seated in what appears to be the backstage area, waiting her turn to perform, waiting for her moment to shine. She knows the camera is there, surely, its lens fixed on her awaiting a pose, so our little Marilyn la del Barrio gives it by asserting her contemplative countenance, looking afar and aside of the photographer. There is no doubt she is posing. There is no doubt she wants her photographic immortality. Yet she, the entertainer, the illusionist, presents it with a demure naturalism: I see you seeing me, so here I am.
These two photographs are akin to McCarty’s unpeopled stages in that they are moments when the high theatricality and liveliness expected from a stage performance are undercut by the off-stage ordinariness: images of various performers getting ready backstage, fooling around with one another, posing, or just hanging out in between sets. Many are identified by name — Olga, Miss Alex, Tina, Yoshi (the owner of Mugi’s bar) — yet many are not. We can read through Rivera’s brief reminiscences on the identified ones, or simply Google to get a few hits on a few of them. Even if identified, most are bound to a name in a caption — an “Angela” or “Melissa.” They are a document in this way, a record of being somewhere once upon a time: being bored, being drunk, being tired, being playful in the club or at a house party. In this way, their documentary function, as Rivera puts it, offers a way to forge queer and trans of color futurities from a past that provides an example for our thriving. “We made this city our city, if only for a brief time,” Rivera explains in an email to performance artist Vaginal Davis, the text of which is included in Provisional Notes for a Disappeared City. “Still, our stories are woven into the story of this city — every alley and shitty bar, every empty lot where a rent-controlled building once stood.” Rivera’s work is testimony to the fact that we do not need to always be tragedies, nor theatricalized sensations, nor martyrs to a cause. Our stories, our everyday lives, are the story of Los Angeles, of every city. We can build our own worlds by and for ourselves.
The stories of queer Latinx life, in Los Angeles and throughout the United States, have changed in the past decades, not only due to gentrification and the AIDS epidemic, but also to the sweeping force of technology. The lives Rivera documents look different in a world where digital apps dominate the landscape of how queers communicate, relate, and socialize. The Los Angeles of Provisional Notes for a Disappeared City is one which depended upon in-person contact: cruising, congregating, and carousing across public and private spaces that provided sex, fun, and community. At the same time, the queer Latinx spaces where we congregate are exposed to violent attack, evidenced most keenly in the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre. In this age of ever-proliferating white supremacist nationalism, xenophobia, and cishet patriarchy, our congregating is always an exposure to harm, an exposure to the potential loss of life. Our sashaying and drinking and partying and embracing for a photo is always a political act that can be met, in turn, with our demise.
We have also yet to see the full devastation the COVID-19 pandemic will bring to racialized communities in Los Angeles, most particularly to queer and trans of color communities and spaces as bars, restaurants, and nightlife continue to shutter across the country. As a year of isolation and quarantine continues on, we have all quickly realized the digital can only provide so much. This is why the two unidentified performers above, their strikingly presented plainness that Rivera evokes, reminds us of the allure of documentary photography, of its ability to remind us of and transport us to another space and time. These images remind us of what it means to be together, in our drab ordinariness, in our shared laughter and contemplation. I add to their photographs one more by Rivera of two girls sitting at a bar. One girl smiles grandly, joyously, her legs crossed and left hand falling elegantly back at the wrist, while the other looks on with a rouged smirk, hand up to the side. This shot of two girls, seated with beer bottles, cigarettes, and an ash tray on the small wooden table between them, captures a moment and a world in a single image.
Undoubtedly, Rivera’s writing on these photographs is textured by mourning a past Los Angeles, his documentary photos rectifying an historical erasure he witnesses taking place. He cites the losses that queer and Latinx communities in Los Angeles suffered during and after the moments of his images: the reduction of affordable housing units, the impact of HIV/AIDS on queer lifespans, changing neighborhood demographics that homogenize nonwhite and working-class communities into primarily white and upper-class enclaves. As troubling as these changes are, Rivera suggests that he thinks these changes might produce new possibilities. “We’ve passed progressive measures that wouldn’t have passed a decade ago,” he explains in an email to Vaginal Davis. “At least there are progressives in this new wave of young people moving in, even though they might seem a bit suburban in their quest for safety.” Rivera remains cautiously optimistic that in the 21st century, Angelenos can “build a better city this time.” That optimism recalls Muñoz’s writing on queer utopian longing. The Los Angeles in Rivera’s photographs deserves to be lamented, yet that mourning does not foreclose the possibility for another version of these queer quotidian socialities’ emergence. In fact, yesterday’s city might be the blueprint for how to forge a better city in the here and now and tomorrow.
I keep Rivera’s book of photographs as a coffee-table book, a designation suggesting merely the decorative, an object to be quickly considered or thumbed through, but rarely actually opened. For the most part, that coffee-table destiny is precisely the function I want Rivera’s book to serve: as everyday decoration, as record of who came before me, of the communities and structures that make my life possible, of the work I must continue to do in order to construct a world rid of poverty, displacement, violence, and early deaths for queer and trans people of color. These photos remind us that sometimes what we want and what we need is immersion in the highs and lows of the mundane, passing the time embraced in another’s arms with drink in hand or taking to the stage with garments purchased on a budget, in the glow of the not quite fully worry-free life — though, as best as we can, relishing in what little we get of it because that little bit is all ours for the taking. These photographs are the record of our right to splendid ordinariness, the document of our quotidian radiance.