The beloved Chicana photographer Laura Aguilar, known for her portraiture of underrepresented Latinx subjects, died Wednesday at the age of 58 in a Long Beach nursing home.
Aguilar, a self-taught photographer, turned her camera lens toward the invisible communities of Los Angeles: Latinx, queer, large-bodied, working-class people like herself. Her journey to become a critically acclaimed photographer began in her teenage years when she was discriminated at school for her auditory dyslexia, which made it difficult for her to read and speak. Her disability – which would go undiagnosed until she reached the age of 26 – however, would only encourage Aguilar to find other forms of communication, such as photography. Through her brother, Aguilar learned the secrets of the dark room and adventured to take a high school photography class, in which she took the first images of her decades-long career.
By the late 1980s, Aguilar had developed a powerful perspective; at a time when the gay rights movement had become unbearably white, Aguilar gave a much-needed platform for queer women of color to be seen and heard. In her series Latina Lesbians, Aguilar took portraits of queer, Latinx friends, who gazed proudly at the camera, refusing to be cast aside and invisible any longer. Each photograph was accompanied by a quote each woman wrote describing what being a lesbian meant to her. Aguilar, herself, is said to have come out through this series in a self-portrait titled “Laura,” in which a handwritten text explains: “I am not comfortable with the word lesbian, but everyday I am more and more comfortable with the word LAURA.”
While Aguilar had experimented with self-portraiture since the late 1980s, her most impactful series using this technique are perhaps photographs from the late 1990s and early 2000s that set Aguilar’s nude body against the arid terrain of the Southwest. The result was images in which Aguilar’s brown body blended beautifully into desert landscapes and inspired the same awe and wonder characteristic of the natural world.
“I’m trying to convince myself I’m not what I always thought of myself: ‘I’m ugly, I’m fat, I’m not worth living,’” Aguilar said of this series. “I am these things, too: I am a kind person, a funny person, a compassionate person. In the photographs, I’m beautiful. I’m kind to myself.”
Decades later, it’s the kindness and empathy she afforded herself and her subjects that still speaks through her photographs today. During her lifetime, Aguilar was known as a pioneer for queer, Chicanx photography and paved the way for subsequent generations to speak honestly on the complexities and intersectionalities of Latinx identity.
In the United States, where Latinx art is woefully underrepresented and misunderstood, her images traveled the country and were featured in important exhibitions in Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Hammer Museum, Artpace in San Antonio and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. Her last exhibit, a retrospective of more than 130 photographs, spanning the years 1976 to 2007, was Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell, included in last year’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA series. Aguilar’s retrospective show will be open to the public at Miami’s Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum until June 3.
But in the meantime, check out a few of her NSFW photographs below.