Latin American Fotografia: Star Montana

By David Schonauer   Monday January 27, 2014

Photographer Star Montana is a two-time winner of the Latin American Fotografia competition. Her photograph “Gloria, The Constructs of Mexican-Americanism,” selected for LAF 2, will be spotlighted here in the near future. Today, we feature her series “Saint Louise Ascends” and “Saint Louise is Our Salvation,” which were chosen in the LAF 1 contest. That work, an intimate look at her own family life that began after her mother’s death, was also recently chosen for the prestigious Los Angeles Metro Lightbox series, which brings large-scale artwork to transit stations in the city. As Montana notes, the images in the series were taken without any conceptual organization; only later did she realize that they told a story about the redemptive nature of love and the healing power of art—a chapter of an overarching project about her family life in East Los Angeles titled “Tear Drops and Three Dots.”

“The images I made during my mother’s fast demise were raw and full of pain, and then a few weeks after we had laid her to rest I put my camera down,” Montana says.

She and her brother had not only lost their mother, but also the home they shared with her. “Things were so unstable. My brother and I thought it would be best to stick together, so we made the choice of moving into a small one-bedroom apartment with our father. We had always lived with our mother, with our own rooms, so the dynamics completely changed.” Moving along with them were her brother’s girlfriend and their infant son, Louise.

“Baby Louise was born a few months before my mother died and was given her name because of my Mama and brother Frankie’s close bond,” says Montana. “Louise was so little when we all began to live together, and we began to see this little soul take shape as his character formed. He needed us all and gave us such love. It changed our mourning process. He changed me as a photographer. I picked up my camera again to photograph special moments we all shared together. I wasn't looking for raw, intense moments with my family anymore, just quiet moments of healing, and Louise gave us a hope we thought we had lost when my mother passed.”


The photograph here was made in December 2011. “I tend to keep my camera, a Canon 5D Mark II, close by, ready for special moments,” Montana says. "I saw Louise, at 11 months, wanting his independence from my brother’s careful watch. The baby had been attempting to stand on the top of couch on his own, failing and falling into my brother’s hands, yet Louise’s determination wouldn’t let it go. I just started shooting images. On Louise’s third or fourth attempt, my brother let go and Louise stood strong by himself. I still remember how beautiful he looked with the light and his surroundings, yet my brother still kept his foot near the baby, just in case.  Looking back and seeing how he is ascending up, in contrast to the famous Diego Rivera artwork tilted downward, reminds me of our hope for Louise to be so much more than anyone in our family has in the past.”

Montana lived together with her family in the apartment for a year, until the day came when she faced a new chapter in her own life, leaving Los Angeles for New York City to finish her BFA at the School of Visual Arts. “It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make, leaving my family for a dream 2,400 miles away,” she says. “It was in the critiques I had at SVA that I first realized that the images I had been making of Baby Louise and my family were part of a series.”

Now living in Brooklyn, Montana returns frequently to Los Angeles to continue her loose body of work about her life there. “The longer I stay away from Los Angeles, the more precise my vision of images I need to make,” she says. “I allowed images to haunt my mind for about a year before I went back home to begin to execute them. The results have me asking more questions about myself about my next move in photography.”

Dispatches from Latin America