Photographers in Focus: Laura Aguilar

Before her untimely death in April this year, aged only 58, Mexican-American photographer Laura Aguilar had cemented herself not only as a pioneer of Chicana photography, but as an artist who treated her subjects with a tenderness nearly unrivalled in contemporary image-making. Composed of pensive studies of love, the body, and the natural world, Aguilar’s work was not simply about creating arresting images, but about celebrating queer culture and marginalized voices within the wider narrative of American art and photography. In this profile of the late great image-maker, filmmaker Adinah Dancyger examines the life and work of a figure who stood at the forefront of radical photography, capturing a side of America rarely before seen with such honesty. Shooting Latina lesbians in the 1980s, capturing life at queer Chicana bars, and composing scenes within the fold of the natural world, Aguilar’s empathy enabled her to take authoritative pictures without dominating her subjects. Her gaze is unfazed but not exploitative; tender but not sentimental. Images such as her 1996 photograph, ‘Nature Self-Portrait 14’ reveal her mastery both as a technician of film and as a composer—the photo’s subject pauses, leaning and naked, over a pool of water—a bed of stone beneath her body. Taken at a time when Aguilar was grieving the loss of a close friend, the image speaks to the proximity of bodies and nature—a not unnatural decision considering she trained, and lived, amid the wild heat and deserts of Los Angeles. Her images also assert a distinctively queer, female gaze toward the female body—sparing it the clumsy dominance of male objectification. Aguilar’s approach was to transform such vulnerability into strength, while acknowledging the slippery and complex split identity she maintained as a queer Irish-Mexican living in the States.

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