“The photo world, in general, was very machismo, Sophie was small and quiet, but she made her presence known. She was making street photography when New York was really at its nadir. The camera made her fearless. It gave her a mission and a purpose.” -Elizabeth Ferrer, chief curator, contemporary art at BRIC
New York City, the 70s
The city was a wild place in the 1970s. Puerto Ricans were portrayed in books and movies as hustlers, addicts and drug pushers. Street photographer Sophie Rivera was concerned about the less than positive depiction of her fellow Puerto Ricans. Rocio Aranda-Alavardo, former curator at El Museo del Barrio, said, “Sophie wanted to record her people with dignity and tenderness.”
Sophie Rivera was part of a group of mainly male Puerto Rican photographers who documented their community. Their work was intended to pull their people out of society’s stereotypes portrayed in movies like “Fort Apache: The Bronx.”
Latinx artists at that time were not seen in galleries or in museums. “What struck me was that Sophie was always right there, she was just part of that scene, one of the few women,” said Elizabeth Ferrer.
During this time, Rivera began making portraits of people walking by her apartment building in Morningside Heights. She would ask them if they were Puerto Rican. When one of them said yes, she invited them into her studio and made straight on stark frontal portraits. The portraits were enlarged to 4-by-4 foot prints.
She called the series “Nuyorican Portraits,” which refers to Puerto Ricans who have moved to the city (opening photo, top row.) This under three-minute video tells more about these images and shows a pair of the large prints.
These photos of New York Puerto Ricans are placed in their time by their clothes and hairstyles. Surrounded by light, their formal right at the camera poses makes them eternal. The New York Times’ Vivien Raynor compared Rivera’s photos to the portraits of Édouard Manet. Holland Cotter in a May 7, 1999 article in the Times, describes the work of Puerto Rican photographers in the exhibition “Urban Mythologies: The Bronx Represented Since the 1960s” this way: “Such images, verifying a specific human presence, come throughout the exhibition, in the photographs of Mel Rosenthal, Ricky Flores and Walter Rosenblum, and in the incandescent, life-size portraits by Sophie Rivera.”
Parallel: Richard Avedon
Charles Biasiny-Rivera, a co-founder of En Foco, said in an interview: “She was a very independent soul. Her photography was not in any kind of mode, though Avedon was also beginning to make portraits in a similar manner. It was simply a sort of facing what was before you. Her images didn’t play tricks.”
Celebrities, the subway and self-portraits
Sophie Rivera photographed celebrities, workers painting the subway and subway riders as well as many candid street photographs (opening photo, bottom row first image “Margaux Hemingway and Joe Namath,” bottom row, center section, clockwise from left: Painter, scribe, distorted baby in mirror and Romania, bottom row, last image, young pregnant woman).
She also made nude photographs of herself and still life photos of her own body’s wastes.
Sophie Rivera’s photographs are in the permanent collections of The Whitney Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and El Museo del Barrio. She has had solo exhibitions and participated in group shows at prestigious location like the International Center of Photography, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
Sophie Rivera first studied photography at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan. She received scholarships to the Apeiron Workshops where she studied under Paul Caponigro and Lisette Model. This began her decades-long career photographing New York’s Latinx, mainly Puerto Rican working class.
She met psychiatrist Dr. Martin Horwitz in Orchard Beach in the Bronx in 1961. They moved into their apartment in Morningside Heights some years later. They married in 1990. She set up her darkroom and studio there. The stoop of the building was the meeting place for the subjects of her Nuyorican series. In 1984 she joined a rally at the Museum of Modern Art to protest the lack of representation of female artists. At one point she had her own gallery in an apartment in Washington Heights.
She died at age 84 of a neurodegenerative disease.
“She’s best known for her portraits, but she is also the great unknown street photographer,” said Ms. Ferrer, of BRIC. “I think that’s part of her power — wanting to capture everyday working people and using photography to reveal their humanity.”