Remembering Sophie Rivera, the Puerto Rican Master of Photography

Sophie Rivera BELatina Latinx
Photo: Hammer Museum.

Susan Sontag used to say that “photographs are a way of imprisoning reality,” a way of paralyzing time and appropriating the world through an image. For photographer Sophie Rivera, the reality was immense, and her images are testimony to that.

Born in 1938 in the Bronx, New York, Sophie Rivera was an American artist and photographer of Puerto Rican descent, recognized for her activism through education and for her photographic series that redefined Puerto Rican identity in the United States.

Rivera studied at the New School for Social Research and the Apeiron Workshops in Millerton and would make her work and vision known through the success of her 1978 photographic series Nuyorican Portraits, which included 50 black and white portraits taken in her home of Puerto Ricans in her neighborhood.

Sophie Rivera was also an early member and instructor of En Foco, a non-profit organization focused on contemporary fine art and photographers of diverse cultures.

In Nuyorican Portraits, Rivera sought to deconstruct the stereotype of the Puerto Rican in the United States and highlight diversity through a personal quest.

Her most famous series, six pieces from the collection, was presented at Yankee Stadium on December 14, 1989, in an exhibition entitled Revelations: A Latino Portfolio. Subsequently, 36 of the fifty photographs were destroyed in a studio fire.

Nuyorican Portraits Sophie Rivera BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of sophierivera.net

As Buzzfeed recounts, Rivera’s work is now in museums such as the Smithsonian and the Brooklyn Museum, galleries, and private collections around the world. Rivera also practiced street photography, photographing the Latino residents and neighbors of her Morningside Heights neighborhood. As a street photographer, she was eclectic and independent. She could also be critical of her colleagues in the photography world, many of them white men.

“She had a camera when we met; she took some pictures, but she worked as a belly dancer at the time,” her husband for 60 years, Dr. Martin Hurwitz, told the media. “Photography gripped her,” Hurwitz said. “She started taking pictures of everything, the neighborhood. She was my wife, but she was incredibly talented as well. She worked really hard at it. She was a good citizen, great artist, and we loved each other.”

Rivera’s work also explored and challenged the social view of the female sex, which made her a “radical” woman in Latin American art of the 1980s.

“One of the things that she’s important for, she was a true feminist,” said Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, an art historian and independent curator of over 30 years and a champion of Sophie Rivera’s work, to Buzzfeed.

“I don’t really know as much work as powerful as hers,” said Fajardo-Hill. “Her most important work is extremely intimate, about herself and about Martin and about the body. In her Rouge et Noir series, she celebrates women’s bodies through these still lifes, even when they’re a still life of a toilet bowl. I think that the way she beautified this is important.”