Star Montana's Photos Capture Loss, Pain and Family Secrets in East L.A.

Star Montana's Photos Capture Loss, Pain and Family Secrets in East L.A. (2)
Photo courtesy of Vincent Price Art Museum

The cushioned back of a mustard-colored couch sinks a little as the small feet of a child push into it. Another foot — an adult one – lingers near the child, a toe touching the toddler’s leg as if offering a small semblance of support in case he falls. He wears nothing but a diaper and a shirt. Behind him, a reproduction of a Diego Rivera painting, “The Flower Carrier,” hangs on the wall, skewed a little to one side.

The photograph encapsulates the style of Star Montana, a Boyle Heights–based photographer whose work chronicles her family's history. Her current show at the Vincent Price Art Museum, “Tear Drops and Three Dots,” displays chronologically ordered family photographs broken up into three sections: a collage titled “Family History: 1987-2010"; photographs of her mom Louisa’s passing ("Saint Louisa Ascends"); and photographs of her nephew Louis ("Saint Louis Is Our Salvation"). Several of her photographs are currently on display at the Vermont/Beverly Metro station as well.

Montana describes her younger self as a “street kid” who mostly spent her time “running around the street” with friends. One of her best friends eventually started taking classes at East Los Angeles College (ELAC) and showed Montana a series of photographs she took. In that moment, Montana realized that photography would become an important outlet for her.

Her family had always used photographs as a means of remembering family members who'd died. Even so, Montana didn’t initially see it as something that could turn into art, photographing her friends and family for fun.

“I didn’t understand what it was in terms of art or even as a medium,” she says. “It just came together — it was something I’d always done — but then I learned it was an actual craft and I could get trained in it and turn it into an art.”

Star Montana's Photos Capture Loss, Pain and Family Secrets in East L.A. (3)
Photo courtesy of Vincent Price Art Museum

Montana started taking photography classes and learned more about art through her professors at ELAC, but a lot of what she saw didn’t inspire her.

“I didn’t see me,” she says. “I didn’t see the people that I grew up with and I didn’t see underprivileged communities.”

She started searching online for other photographers who might represent her community and found the work of Joseph Rodriguez. With time — when the Internet started making art information more accessible — Montana found more Latino photographers. 

“It’s really great to see that history’s being rewritten,” Montana says. “That me and younger generations can say, 'Oh, well actually, there have always been photographers in East L.A. or in the Los Angeles area.'”

Star Montana's Photos Capture Loss, Pain and Family Secrets in East L.A.
Photo courtesy of Vincent Price Art Museum

Her photographs capture the soul of Boyle Heights. Montana sees both the benefits and disadvantages of changes happening in the neighborhood, particularly when it comes to gentrification (which she experienced in Brooklyn, too). A Big Buy Foods store in her neighborhood is now a Walgreens. But she loves seeing more art establishments in the area.

“The fact that there’s galleries now on First Street — First Street used to be really bad, we didn’t like going there,” Montana says. “Now it’s a vibrant little art community. Which is good. It’s great for the future generation, but I’m just hesitant on the gentrification part of it, where maybe the youth won’t enjoy it because they might be pushed out.”

Montana’s work oscillates between reflecting on her community and sharing her own, oftentimes painful family history. “Tears Drops and Three Dots” is an extremely personal show. One of the photographs on display is the last photo the artist took with her mother before she died. At first, Montana was hesitant to photograph her mother in the hospital. But her mother insisted.

Star Montana's Photos Capture Loss, Pain and Family Secrets in East L.A. (4)
Photo courtesy of Vincent Price Art Museum

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“She asked me to take a picture of me and her in the hospital,” Montana says. “I wouldn’t have done it. I didn’t have that courage at that moment to do it. … When she told me to take it, she was like, ‘You need to show the world this is what happens, this is the price you pay when you’re young and you’re reckless. Show your friends. This is what happens.’”

Montana remembers watching her mother share her own story frequently at Narcotics Anonymous meetings. That helped the photographer find her courage to share the turbulent history of her family. And in many ways, taking and displaying the photographs proved therapeutic.

"My family has been destroyed and eaten up by secrets, which most families have,” Montana says. “I’m tired of that cycle of, you know, ‘Don’t say anything, don’t let the secrets out, keep it all inside.’” No, I’m breaking that cycle. Our family history is ugly and it’s really sad and there’s a lot of loss, but it’s not a weight that I’m willing to carry anymore.”

After attending ELAC, Montana transferred to the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where she learned that, while this history was personal and very much embedded in Boyle Heights, her work could also be universal. Now she's excited for the work to be seen by people in the community — and hopes that others in LA can find themes that resonate with them.

“Tear Drops and Three Dots” is on display at theVincent Price Art Museum, East Los Angeles College, 1301 Avenida Cesar Chavez, Monterey Park; through May 21.

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