The Streets in Afterglow

Star Montana’s dreamy portraits capture the golden aura of East Los Angeles.

By Juana María Rodríguez

Star Montana, Marina, East Los Angeles, 2016
Courtesy the artist

Star Montana’s name is a poem. Born around the magic hour in the Boyle Heights of 1987, she carries the mystery of fading light with her because this is Los Angeles and everyone needs some kind of protection. Montana’s subjects—the strangers and friends that populate her vision of East LA—enter her light and present themselves to their future ancestors. There, in the moment of that encounter, she invites them to meet her in a frame. Now they are two. Together, they drag out time; they talk and stare. They pose and shoot and pose again. To see the space between them collapse into an image, you need to go slow, to bounce into a deeper register, into the low-hum frequency of a never-distant freeway. Huachole. This is not a drive-by. Step out, step onto the pavement, and stroll through this space that has no place to go except back around the block, past the murals that promised hope that wore away faster than the greens and reds of a faded nation.

Star Montana, BB, Boyle Heights, 2015
Courtesy the artist

Each one of these images took more than a minute, and carries more than one lifetime. Even as Montana invites you in, you will look and still not know. If you hold still, if you lag behind, you might breathe in the smoke of chicharrones sizzling in old grease, read it as a sign, and imagine it a blessing. Blink, and try to adjust to the light. This is how you prepare for the stories found on the sidewalks and not discarded. Know that nobody here is smiling for you, dressing for you, asking of you. Blink, and look again to align vulnerability and care, proximity and precarity.

In Montana’s world, the stories and the light each mark their own time, because everyone here knows the cruelty of clocks. Better to wait for the daily surprise of sunlight and stories that fade into the dark. This is the City of Angels Montana has brought you, the street dreams she has tenderly composed. These photographs perform a fragile communion; it is intimacy that hurts. Crafted through sad-girl eyelashes, they are awash in the dissolving hues of mourning that color so much of Montana’s work. This is mother loss, brother loss, where-do-I-belong-now loss. These faces could break you; secrets rubbed out like cigarette butts or rose petals.

Star Montana, Sandra, Boyle Heights, 2015
Courtesy the artist

But if you squint, if you glide past, low and slow, you will find the milagritos left there by the roaming gangs of urban angels who also haunt these streets, throwing up their own signs of eternal belonging. Notice the concrete halo flaking into the screaming white, the latticed blessing caught in a breeze over shuttered eyes, the purple possibilities sprouting against the fences of forgotten-ness. Let us pray to the reina of golden hoops and stitched-on promises. This is the miracle of Maybelline, Boyle Heights heartbreak soaked in LA sunlight.

Juana María Rodríguez is Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Read more from Aperture issue 232, “Los Angeles,” or subscribe to Aperture and never miss an issue.

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