Behind The Lens: Chris Rivera’s Surreal Portraits Inspired by Cinema

Growing up, Chris Rivera was never really interested in photography. It wasn't until he modeled for a friend's staged wedding that the art of photography piqued his interested. He was so inspired by the process that he began to explore locations around his home in Southern California to experiment with his own conceptual images. It didn't take long for Chris to become hooked. He knew he found his true passion, prompting him to start a 365 Day challenge, taking a photo a day for an entire year.

Often inspired by visually stunning movies like Harry Potter, you can see the surreal fantasy he creates in his photos. His work merges mysterious landscapes with haunting poses to tell unique stories that leave you inspired. We were lucky enough to catch up with him for a behind the lens look into is work.

Can you tell us a bit about your journey into photography?

It's actually quite ironic: I never used to like photography. My dad would always have the camera out and take pics of my sister and I when were kids, so I was kind of turned off by it! However, I had a turning point in my last year in high school when a friend, who had a DSLR, shot a pretend wedding and I was in it. I was fascinated by the fact that she was able to control her settings and her focus, so when she started up a photography club that school year, I joined! I didn't really learn much because most of the settings they taught were for DSLRs and I had a point and shoot, but I just shot anything and everything to get the experience! When I graduated high school that year, I bought myself a Canon Rebel T2i and started shooting macros and landscapes! At one point, I decided to start experimenting with self portraits and conceptual art… and I never stopped.

What are some of your interests?

I'm based in Camarillo, California, a smaller town just thirty minutes away from Malibu and it's a nice area with a lot of hiking and biking trails, so that's always a fun thing to do when I'm not shooting! Listening to music, watching visually appealing movies and being with my family and friends are things I love to do as well! My interests include travel, staying healthy, and just making the most out of life and enjoying it while I can!

What inspires you?

There's plenty of things that inspire me, but if I had to choose some main categories, they would be: minimalism, myths, music, film, nature, color, and certain cultures (Indian and Arabian, specifically). It's funny because with music, I find inspiration in the Hip-Hop/R&B genres of music–Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, The Weeknd, and Beyonc. I even did a photo series based on “Holy Grail” by Jay Z and Justin Timberlake called “The Curse.” As for movies, fantasy movies and science fiction light up the inspiration bulb in my mind, my favorite movie(s) being the Harry Potter series! They're just full of imagination and creativity, it makes me so happy to even think about them!


If you could define your style, what would you call it?

My style would probably be best described as “minimal fine-art conceptual fashion portrait photography”: I shuffle between these types of photography when I shoot!

How did you come into this style of photography? 

Well, I think I started getting into it when I was searching through my Instagram feed and I found out about Brooke Shaden, back in about 2012. I had done some experimenting in Photoshop with self-portraits, so I decided to take it further and try to create some stories with it in a 365 day challenge, taking one photo a day for 365 days! Although it's taken me a while to finish it, I've learned about myself as an artist through this project and have created a unique style!

What was the first photograph that really made you proud to be a photographer?

There was a photo that I posted one hundred twenty four weeks ago (according to my Instagram, anyways). It's a black and white multiple exposure photo where I blend-layered a cityscape of L.A. onto my face. Because of that photo, I ended up winning an Instagram contest, with the prize being a radio interview with KPCC in their Pasadena studio! That was really exciting and it helped me feel motivated about my work as a photographer and that I shouldn't stop what I was doing.

Take us through a typical day of shooting.

When I shoot, I like to make sure I have enough battery on my phone to use as a remote and to use as music! I go to a pre-planned location and bring whatever wardrobe and props that I'll be shooting! For a few minutes, I sort of scout the place out a bit: are there any chopped down fields I need to worry about, are there a lot of people in my background, things like that. When I'm ready to shoot, I set up my camera and I'll just go to town for probably a good hour, sometimes just thinking of concepts on the spot and just creating on a limb! My favorite times to shoot would probably be sunrise and sunset, and the golden hour that one can shoot at those times! However, if I want to shoot some sort of high-key image or fashion, I like to use harsh lighting and shoot in the middle of the day. Once I get home from shooting, I upload everything onto my computer and get to editing in Photoshop!

Do you plan out your shoots in advance? Do you have any sketches?

Oh, for sure! I usually like to know where I'm going to shoot, that'll be the first thing that I plan! I like to draw a quick sketch as well, especially for the concepts that are really vivid in my mind. I do plan certain concepts for certain people that I may be meeting up to shoot with that I'll only see very rarely. For example, in my photo “The Princess, Natural,” my friend Victoria has super long hair and I wanted to incorporate it into some awesome way, so I decided to make a headdress of hair out of it!

What is your favorite shooting location?

My favorite shooting location EVER was probably Death Valley. I absolutely am a sucker for sand dunes and the desert, no matter where! Locations that are less than an hour away from my house that I like to adventure to on a day off of work would either be Victory Trailhead in the Valley (a golden field) or Lizard's Mouth in Santa Barbara (sand rocks). They both offer something, in my opinion, that's far more interesting than your average California beaches at sunset! I do bet though, that if I lived in a forested area, I would probably be in there all day just making art!

What challenges have you faced while shooting?

I try as much as I can to avoid challenges when I shoot, like charging batteries before I leave or making sure my SD cards are empty. I've dealt with that in the past. For self-portraits, I used to have such a hard time trying to focus on myself for the photo! Thank goodness for my Canon 6D and its wi-fi capability, I can use my phone as a remote–it even shows the camera screen on my phone so I could see what's in focus. There are challenges that I can't control though, like weather. Weather can always be tricky, but sometimes you just have to work with it!

What's a must have in your gear bag?

My gear bag is always loaded with my camera, which is a Canon 6D, a 24-105mm f/4 lens, a 50mm f/1.4 lens and an additional battery! Some of my smaller props, like shards of glass (in a bag, don't worry, I haven't cut myself), a toy camera and a black cloth. I like to bring water and a snack sometimes, if I know I'll be out for a long time!

How much post processing goes into a completed photo? Can you tell us your process?

The amount of post processing depends on what the concept of the photo is. Something that is always consistent with my photos: I use the Brenzier Method to expand my frame! If a piece requires just a touch of surrealism, like my photo “Rising,” I'll just superimpose one element into the mix and mess with tones and be done within an hour. On the other hand, if I'm editing a photo with a lot of elements, it takes a lot more photos and a lot more thought gets put into the edit. Another essential for my editing process are layer masks, curves adjustments, and selective color adjustments! I use those on the daily!

Do you have a favorite series you've shot?

That's actually a tough one. A photo series of mine that worked out amazing was “The Curse” series, that I mentioned earlier! I was in the mood for the photo the whole shoot (meaning, I had “Holy Grail” by Jay Z and Justin Timberlake on REPEAT) and it looked even better than I had envisioned!
There is another series that I would consider my favorite: my “Forever: On the Run” series! Not only is it a favorite because of the images and video that came out of it, but because of the actual shooting, planning, and all the fun my models and I had creating the series!

What are your plans for the future?

It'll definitely be photography related! I have plans of looking for a job as an assistant or a color corrector in the city and working my way up the food chain! Maybe I'll even work as a graphic designer! Who knows what will even happen 2-3 years from now? I just know I'll be in the creative field!

Do you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

Oh yes! For one, your gear doesn't define your photography. One can still take amazing photos on an entry level camera! Most of my work was done on a Rebel T2i, a camera that's been discontinued since 2011. Another tip I would give is to not stress yourself out with your work and social media outlets! At one time during my 365, I was stressing out about posting and creating so much, that I ended up seeing it as homework rather than fun! To tackle that, I took a week long break from social media and got myself centered again. When I was ready to come back, I would shoot when I wanted to! I feel much more free to create what I want. Oh, and HAVE FUN! Photography may be an intense business at times, but there's always time to enjoy yourself during shoots and editing!

Thank you so much Chris! You can check out more of this gifted photographer's work on his website.

Are you a photographer? Would you like to be interviewed for our Behind The Lens series? Leave your links in the comments below!

Become a
My Modern Met Member
As a member, you'll join us in our effort to support the arts.
Become a Member
Explore member benefits

Sponsored Content