Commissioning a surrealist family portrait

Alexandra Diez de Rivera’s unique take on immortalising her subjects on film

Portrait photographer Alexandra Diez de Rivera often gets a brief that goes something like this: “We want lively, we want fun – we just don’t want cheesy”. Those looking for an off-beat family portrait have come to the right person, for each of Diez de Rivera’s portraits tells an individual story – and does so with tongue-in-cheek humour. Witness a commission for a couple’s five-year anniversary: Diez de Rivera decided to photograph them in their bedroom – smack in the middle of a food fight (second picture). She dressed the woman in her wedding gown, replete with feather headdress, and the man in one of his fancy-dress outfits. Other client scenarios have included a Mad Hatter’s tea party, parents trapped in their children’s imaginary racetrack (first picture), a betowelled couple looking at their wedding-dressed reflection in the bathroom mirror (fourth picture), and budding Picassos painting their mother’s grandly elongated dress (third picture). Signature to Diez de Rivera’s work is a merging of photography and graphic design, the real and surreal (cloned images feature heavily), and props and costumes – usually the family’s own – all of which further narrate the story.

Brought up by a Spanish father, Argentine mother and French stepfather, and now working between Paris and Shanghai, Diez de Rivera’s clients are as international as her own background. She has photographed families from New York to Beijing, Megève to Dubai, but she doesn’t shy away from shooting individuals (one example is of a man playing chess with his two giant poodles) or groups of friends (post-girls’-night-out bash in Shanghai) – she even photographs herself (Diez de Rivera’s head on a plate at her stepfather’s estate). Her portraits start at £2,500 for a single 60cm x 40cm photograph plus two A4 photographs, and take up to two months to deliver.

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Commissions begin with Diez de Rivera looking through as many family pictures as possible, to find out more about her clients’ characters. But the less day-to-day information she has, the better, she says. “Otherwise you find that everyone is a lawyer or a doctor, or that everyone loves to ski or go to the sea. What I’m looking for is that je ne sais quoi detail – the thing that gives a household its unique character.” A story, complete with plot twists and turns, is then brainstormed with the client (usually by email).

All the details – including the exact room to photograph in – must be finalised before the day of the shoot. Such meticulous preparation is vital. “The fewer decisions I need to make on the day, the more I can concentrate on the most important part of the photo – which is making people look genuine. If I’m to photograph, say, a woman about to slap her husband across the face, I have to focus all my attention on making it realistic.”

Part photographer, part art director, Diez de Rivera will often photograph more than 20 different images, and a session can take around three to four hours. “It’s a bit of a puzzle,” she says, “but by the end of the shoot we are having lots of fun.”

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