How can Los Angeles fully tell its stories and represent its diverse communities? Photography might be one answer. I Dream of Los Angeles, currently on view at Beta Main, shows portraits local artist Star Montana took of both friends and strangers in East and South L.A., in which Angelenos might see someone who looks familiar — either like themselves or someone they know.
A Boyle Heights native, Montana left home to study in New York but held on to the dreamlike quality of L.A.’s streets and sunshine. But other realities crept in: gentrification, changing landscapes, police brutality — all themes she has woven into her photographs. The series doesn’t skirt around these truths; instead, each photograph contains the beauty of the city without hiding its rougher edges.
Unlike some portrait photography that keeps the story behind each image a mystery, Montana lets the viewer right in. The wall text near each photograph details how the artist knows each subject or where she photographed them and also delves into the things that might have been on the subject’s mind at the time of the photograph, like family problems, neighborhood changes, and personal histories.
“Sandra” (2015) shows a woman with flowers in her hair, gold hoops in her ears, and thick eyeliner. Shadows creep on the background but also along her waist and arms. Her shirt shows Virgen de Guadalupe imagery. She looks into the distance, away from the camera.
“There wasn’t much of a relationship between us, so she couldn’t look right at me,” the wall text, written from Montana’s point of view, explains. “Instead, she decided to dream and look the other way beyond me.”
By explaining the connection, or lack thereof, between herself and her subjects, Montana inserts herself into the frame. Viewers see each photograph through their own eyes, but also through the artist’s. This allows the viewer to know each subject more intimately, and to learn more about their environments. In this way, they’re not exoticized or fetishized — they are individuals with agency and complicated back stories.
Seeing bodies of color in large photographs on the white walls of a gallery is still a rarity. Montana also connects each subject to the city. In the wall text next to “Sarah” (2016), the artist talks about the city in frank terms. “Gentrification was happening and yet there were a lot of murders of local brown boys. We took her portrait, and it was very confrontational on both ends, which is weird, because we don’t have a confrontational relationship. But then a week later, the cops murdered that fourteen-year-old boy, Jesse James Romero, for literally tagging on that wall behind Sarah.”
In the photograph, Sarah stands with her feet firmly planted on the ground. Her arms hang on either side of her and a tension seems to run through her body. Her thick hair is pushed to one side in front of her, and she is frowning, probably because of the sunlight. The nondescript wall behind her and a metal door are the only clues as to where she stands.
Montana captures Sarah’s figure and the long shadow cast behind it with the eye of someone who isn’t afraid to take in the complexities of her subject and her surroundings. The photograph takes on more meaning with the context, as if Sarah’s furrowed brow has less to do with the weather and more to do with the things she sees happening in her neighborhood every day.
Sometimes the weight of the subject’s surroundings are seen more literally, as with “Mayra” (2014). This portrait shows a woman looking off into the distance while holding a cigarette. A closer look reveals that her left eye is bruised and swollen; in the wall text, Montana alludes to a fight the subject was involved in.
With each photograph, the viewer gets more pieces of the subjects and their neighborhoods. But Montana makes it clear that, just as not every relationship with her subjects is personal and trusting, the viewer can’t possibly know each subject’s full story from one photograph.
I Dream of Los Angeles makes the case that telling stories is an important task, but it’s only the first step in understanding the diverse communities in a city. The show proves that photography is a powerful tool with which to do so, for the sake of both contemporary society and future generations. Fifty or 100 years from now, people might not know what these streets once looked like, or the stories that they held.
I Dream of Los Angeles continues at Beta Main (114 W 4th Street, Downtown, Los Angeles) until July 23.
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