Los Angeles photographer Laura Aguilar spent her decades-long career candidly examining her identity as a queer Latina. Her work explores issues surrounding the body, mental health, sexuality, socioeconomic status, and acted as a significant vehicle of expression for her while dealing with a learning disability. Her work is candid, serious, and “radically vulnerable,” in the words of curator Amelia Jones.
Tragically, in the spring of 2018, Aguilar passed away—just at a time when her work was finally becoming widely recognized. Museums, including LACMA and the Hammer, were acquiring her photographs, and her work was featured in three exhibitions for Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, including her first-ever museum retrospective. Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell was held, fittingly, at the Vincent Price Museum on the campus of East LA College, where she had studied photography.
In recognition of Aguilar’s significance to photography and to Los Angeles, the Getty Museum has acquired 35 prints from a number of series spanning the photographer’s 40-year career. “Laura Aguilar documented parts of the local community that were overlooked and often outright marginalized by mainstream society,” says photographs curator Arpad Kovacs. “She represented the Chicana/o and Latinx communities and queerness both in front of and behind the lens.”
A selection of the newly acquired prints will go on view for the first time in Unseen: 35 Years of Collecting Photographs (December 17, 2019–March 8, 2020 at the Getty Center).
From the San Gabriel Valley to East LA
Aguilar was born in 1959 in the San Gabriel Valley area of Southern California. She was of Native American, Mexican, and Irish descent, and the intersection of these identities fueled her work.
Aguilar picked up a camera for the first time in her late teens thanks to the encouragement and guidance of her brother. At 18 she began to study photography at East Los Angeles College, where she also found inspiration in Chicano Studies classes. After dealing with auditory dyslexia her whole life, it was here, at college, where she found her voice.
At East LA College Aguilar explored themes of feminism and Chicana/o identity, expanding her practice beyond photography to incorporate collage and text. Most importantly, she gained friends who formed her artistic support system—and she would continue to deepen and expand on these connections for the rest of her life.
Latina Lesbians (1986–90)
Aguilar came out as lesbian in the 1980s, and this aspect of her identity became a fundamental theme of her work.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s Aguilar worked with the Los Angeles LGBT Center, where she encountered other Latina lesbians. She was inspired by these women and made formal portraits that portrayed a positive view of queer achievement. These were women proud of their heritage and sexuality—a radical notion at the time.
Plush Pony (1992)
Aguilar titled her series Plush Pony after an iconic, now-shuttered lesbian bar in East Los Angeles that catered to the Chicana community. For this series she chose lesbian women, couples, and groups she encountered in the bar, creating intimate portraits set in the one place where they could express themselves freely.
Motion #58, 1996, Laura Aguilar. Gelatin silver print, 14 3/16 × 18 3/4 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council, 2019.20.3. © Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016
Nature Portraits (1990s–onward)
Aguilar was known to be extremely shy, but through her art she made her presence known. In the ‘90s she began to photograph herself in nature, where she had spent time with her grandmother, mother, and aunt in her youth and to which she would return throughout her career and life, according to scholar Sybil Venegas.
She also began to invite other women into nature and to photograph them as her subjects. “She’s adding to a history of the female form in nature,” says curator Kovacs. “Anne Brigman, Judy Dater, and Ana Mendieta were two examples of this, as well as possible influences on Laura.”
Aguilar’s practice continued to be rooted in her circle of friends, fellow artists, and fellow queer people. Her subjects trusted her so much that they consented to be photographed nude for a series she titled Clothed/Unclothed.
This work steered Aguilar even further into radical vulnerability, both for herself and for her subjects. They are represented with mutual respect, appreciation, understanding, and trust.
Access + Opportunity = Success
The most recent body of work represented in the acquisition examines Aguilar’s own struggles as a queer Latina artist. Presenting herself as subject, she confronted the roadblocks that underrepresented artists face in a world dominated by straight white men. In the photograph shown above, Aguilar holds up pieces of cardboard on which are written dictionary definitions of access, opportunity, and success.
Aguilar’s work adds a unique voice to the Getty’s photographs collection, which spans the origins of photography to today. Her work joins that of other iconic female photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron and Nan Goldin, other Los Angeles-based artists such as Ed Ruscha, and other Latinx photographers such as Christina Fernandez. Aguilar’s work also provides a counterpoint to representations of the body and feminine beauty in our vast fashion photography collections. Most importantly, key milestones from her body of work remain in her own city, accessible to the public in exhibitions and online, and available as a resource for students and scholars.