“She doesn't understand why people like the picture. For her, it's day to day trying to survive.”
Star Montana remembers staring out of a bus window as a child, taking in all the sights of L.A. at 40 miles per hour. Now, she talks to people on the streets about their stories before photographing them — a process she prefers over simply snapping their photo and walking away.
One day, a woman named Mayra told her about a scuffle she’d been in, thus her black eye; she also nonchalantly pointed out the ankle injury she had from a gunshot wound. That encounter led to Montana's photograph as well as the wall label next to it with a few sentences on the interaction.
For a city that boasts such a large Latinx population, and one that constantly buzzes with excitement over new artists and art openings, the narratives of Latina women can often get lost. “Dreaming of Los Angeles,” Montana’s solo show at the Main Museum, on view through Sept. 24, is an anomaly, an exception to a status quo that favors white photographers in the mainstream photography circuit. Photography serves as a powerful medium, a conduit for stories of Latinas as captured by Latinas.
David Evans Frantz and C. Ondine Chavoya, who curated “Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A.” opening Sept. 9 at ONE Gallery and MOCA Pacific Design Center, recognize the importance of photography in telling stories in Latinx and queer communities. The exhibition features photographs by Laura Aguilar, Elsa Flores, Judy Miranda and more from the late 1960s to the early 1990s. Aguilar’s “Plush Pony” series features queer subjects that she really “got to know” through her photography, as Chavoya explains. “Latina Lesbians” was all about “creating visible representations and role models of what it meant to be Latina and lesbian at that time.”
A series like this works to deconstruct stereotypes about specific groups — but even the process of getting these works proper exposure is an uphill battle for many Latina photographers. Aguilar is just now getting the first major survey of her work; other artists in “Axis Mundo” have yet to receive the recognition Chavoya and Frantz say they deserve.
“Pulling out Judy [Miranda]’s work and showing her photography is so important because it does provide history where there hasn’t really been early examples of Latina women in the field that are doing photography,” says Frantz. “That are capturing the community …”
Community becomes the throughline that can be traced from the work of artists featured in “Axis Mundo” to artists like Montana and the next generation of Latina photographers.
Montana’s exhibit inspired students at the nonprofit organization 826LA. For their weeklong writing workshop this summer, students ages 12 to 18 talked to Montana about her work and interviewed one another. They paired these responses with photos of themselves taken by Emily Blake, mimicking the layout of Montana’s show, in an exhibition at iam8bit.
“During the workshop at the Main Museum, a student named Jackeline responded to the question, 'What is the best advice you have ever received?' by saying, ‘Have your face shown,’” Kenny Ng, programs coordinator at 826LA Echo Park, says via email. “It echoed Star's portrait of Juan, who just wanted 'to know he exists.'”
For Ng, the most important work lies in finding creative ways for students’ voices to be heard. If they have a space to display this kind of work, it means their stories have value.
“It makes it harder to generalize communities when their stories are individual,” Ng writes. “But in order for those stories to exist, we all have to actively create pathways for them in art and elsewhere that their voices are absent.”
Las Fotos Project, also an L.A.-based nonprofit, focuses on fostering a passion for photography in teenage girls through one-on-one mentoring and exhibitions in the city.
“City Rising,” on view through Sept. 16 at at the organization’s public gallery, features the work of 14 teenagers centered around the theme of neighborhoods, homes and gentrification.
Photographers write about the context of each photo. Their insight feels mature beyond its years, as they relay stories of street vendors, neighborhood violence and a changing city. Seeing their work displayed in public has been impactful.
“They are full of pride in their work, they speak with confidence and they realize how talented they are,” Laura Gonzalez, Las Fotos Project's program manager, says in an email. “We tell them all the time, but I think that it’s different when it’s people they don’t know — it validates what we tell them all along.”
Through displaying their work in public, they can “learn that their stories are important.”
Other avenues for raising awareness of Latina photographers’ work have been popping up across the city. The Main Museum hosted a panel conversation called “How We Do It,” featuring Valerie J. Bower, Desilu Muñoz and Arlene Mejorado — all women of color photographers.
In 2016, Mejorado founded Óptica, a photography magazine for and by women of color. The second edition will be released in November and will feature the work of Montana, Marilyn Montufar, Dana Washington and others.
“[Óptica] gives women that do not reflect the dominant white male gaze an opportunity to have their work printed alongside other emerging fotografas,” Mejorado says in an email. “As a lover of both photography books and zines, I knew I wanted to make something that had high-quality printing but [was] also affordable.”
Mejorado has created various photography series and snapshots of L.A. One photograph shows Chulita Vinyl Club sitting on the steps of a house in Boyle Heights; another shows a family posing in a park after a Virgen de Guadalupe procession in East L.A.
The team at La Liga Zine focuses on a similar mission, highlighting a range of Latinx and Chicanx identities including nonbinary and non-gender-conforming people. L.A.-based team member Mia Rodriguez writes for the zine and coordinates photo shoots. She explains that La Liga Zine originally came to fruition as a need to fill a void in street style photography — the fact that bodies of color were often missing. Now, the site features writing, activism and photography in one space while also producing zines for events.
“It’s really important for us to feature more than the traditional image that I think a lot of people have about what it means to look like a Latino,” Rodriguez says.
In “Sister/Nature” Rodriguez worked with photographer Pinky Ortiz to photograph two Afro-Latinx models in Exposition Rose Garden wearing non-gender-conforming clothing by NOSESSO. Ortiz is a male photographer but the project is indicative of the need for more Afro-Latinx women in L.A. to be represented.
Jenoris Caba, herself an Afrolatina and a photographer for La Liga Zine, created “The Mane Language” to show body hair on brown bodies.
For arts professional Nathalie Sanchez, the impetus to highlight different Latinx identities feels like an urgent need specific to Los Angeles, which she calls “the cultural capital of the world.” That means recognizing the power of storytelling.
“This goes back to the importance of elevating many stories, many histories through different lenses and perspectives,” Sanchez says, “in addition to having that cross-cultural and intergenerational dialogue, which I think is more relevant now than ever.”
The unique vantage point offered by Latina photographers in such a sprawling city stems from a mutual respect between photographer and subject. It's an unspoken acknowledgment of a shared disenfranchisement and, more importantly, an inner strength. Montana makes it a point to listen closely to the stories her subjects tell her, and to look them in the eye rather than give them “that pitiful look” she knows too well from telling her own story to others.
“I hate that look,” Montana says. “I don’t want people to do that to my subjects. Because after I photograph them, after they’ve shared their stories and they’ve been vulnerable with me, they go on with their lives. They continue working. They catch a bus or they get back in their car or they go back in their house. And they continue to survive and live and thrive. They’re not looking to be pitied, they just wanted to share their story.”