If you’re lucky enough to be the subject of a Riva Lehrer portrait, chances are you’re famous for being a trailblazer in your field. Sitters have included Alison Bechdel, Hillary Chute, and Mat Fraser. The acclaimed portraitist, anatomy professor, and disability culture advocate lectures on portraiture and power relations. Chicago stopped by her Edgewater studio to learn about the ethics of making someone’s picture.
I have such anxiety about asking someone to let me look at them.
Most of the people I work with have obvious physical impairments, like myself [Lehrer was born with Spina bifida]. These are people who have gone through sometimes entire lifetimes of getting horrifying shit on a daily basis. If someone remarks on what you look like, it's going to hook into thousands of comments that were unintentionally or intentionally painful. So, if someone hasn’t gone through that, who has been normative their whole life, or an attractive person without major problems, I think that they don’t have to weather what it feels like to be told that you are deformed, freakish, unacceptable, ugly, disgusting, whatever.
So, if you've got this thing about you that's stigmatized, what do you do about it? I'm really interested in the creativity of people living a non-normative life—how they use their body, their adaptive devices. A lot of them are performers, writers, scholars, actors, artists.
While making a portrait, I look for a kind of mutual vulnerability through an interview. Then, we can get to a level of extreme consent, by which I mean I start a portrait and then I leave the studio [for her new Risk Picture series]. I leave them all my studio supplies and say, ‘Do something to your portrait. Anything. I don't care. You have to do something.’ They can cut it, burn it, erase it, draw on it. It’s a way of asking people to take on their own power of representation, but also for me to risk having something be ruined. I am very interested in ruin, as a disabled person.
My studio is the only place in my life that I control, and lately that's been feeling more and more false. So I wanted to radically leave that behind, too.
—As told to Jason Foumberg
Riva Lehrer speaks at Story Club Chicago on July 21 at 8 p.m. Co-Prosperity Sphere, 3219-21 S Morgan. storyclubchicago.com.