Today, we are all lonely in Los Angeles, separated in our social isolation. But this is a condition that most Angelenos have been training for all our lives. As a city, LA is one of the loneliest.
The LA skyline evokes a muted exchange, an urbanity that seems activated only from a distance. Films teach us to admire it from afar, shot in aerial view from the dusky peaks of Runyon Canyon or the winding roads of Mulholland. LA, a smog-clotted panorama rising up behind Griffith Park and James Dean’s cocked fists.
Many argue that LA isn’t a city at all, but a series of nodes, quintuplets sharing the same womb of arid landscape. When someone says they’re from LA, I rarely know what they mean. They might mean the San Fernando Valley, Torrance, Culver City or Glendale; they often mean one of the satellite enclaves that slope around a nebulous downtown.
LA’s geography demands little of you. Its fantastical sprawl yields few chance encounters, few obligations of exchange (this contrasts sharply with cities like New York; Olivia Laing, in her essay collection The Lonely City, aptly describes the startling hypervisibility of communal living in New York, how easy it is to watch and be watched). In LA, we move from node to node in our own private isolation vessels—clamped down in our cars, filtering through the noise and opinions of others on the radio. We are siloed, in effect, our lives pre-packaged and pre-plotted. Our social interactions are mapped out by chains of freeways and mental calculations: See you there in 40 minutes, 30 if I hop from the 210 to the 2 to the 5, the 134 to the 101. This arithmetic of roads could lead to the ocean or to the desert, as proud Los Angelenos are quick to remind you. We have it all except each other.
Yet even in our distance, I’ve often joked that LA yields the strongest friendships. In LA, socializing is much less situational, community-making necessarily methodical: if NYC is chaotic Dada, LA is stringent De Stijl. Our city lacks the infrastructure for togetherness, which means we must be particularly purposeful about how we meet. Of course, this is not how everyone lives in LA, but generally, the order we must place on our social lives breeds a specific kind of intimacy. We are all hyper-aware that we have been chosen.
LA intimacy hinges on our acute understanding of our separateness. Solitude is part of coming together; there’s an acceptance, even in a solely geographical sense, that it takes great effort to connect. The late, great Southern California photographer Laura Aguilar, who died on April 25, 2018 at the age of 58, used her work to extend an arm across this expanse. She took the time to bring people close both through and within her work, and she simultaneously honored the experience of being apart.
Aguilar knew the importance of who we choose in this city. Aguilar struggled all her life to be with others in a traditional sense: She battled auditory dyslexia, depression, suicidal ideation, and diabetes. “I used to tell people I grew up on the edge of nothingness,” she once told a friend. She didn’t know she was dyslexic until 26, and was teased at school because kids equated her speech impediment with an inability to speak English, though she didn’t speak Spanish either. She faced rampant discrimination in the art world, and her work was often overlooked. Only in the last few years of her life did her photography begin to receive recognition from the wider arts community. At the time of her death she was living in a nursing home, and would have been among the most vulnerable of us now.
Aguilar was also queer, and her early series Latina Lesbians (1987)—black and white portraits of queer Latinas in LA—simultaneously deals with the joys and responsibilities of community. Each portrait includes hand-written declarations from her subjects that serve as mini-manifestos about identity and belonging; this was her way of using photography for social practice.
Yet even as Aguilar heralds her community, she approaches its linguistic signifiers with trepidation. “I am not comfortable with the word lesbian,” Aguilar writes under her own 1988 self-portrait from the series, Laura, “but everyday I am more and more comfortable with the word LAURA.”
In her 1992 series Plush Pony, which documents LA’s Eastside, Aguilar strips down the hierarchy between subject and photographer by inviting people to participate in staged studio shots. Bathed in glamour lighting and framed by kitschy backdrops, the portraits remind me of the soft-lit photos I took with friends in strip malls as a teenager.
I remember fawning over these images, marveling at our own closeness, the ability of the photograph to enshrine our familiarity. In our giddy adolescence, we believed the images would ensure that we’d never stop knowing each other. Rarely did we think about the gaze of the lens; we arranged ourselves how we liked. The photos were for us, to document our kinship, to memorialize our own particular girlhood bond.
There’s a sense of that agency mirrored in these studio images. The photographer, or in our case photographic machine, becomes a tool through which the subjects can celebrate either their individualism or their unity. The same is true of the photographs that comprise Plush Pony. Laura Aguilar the artist falls away. Her gaze seems actively in service of the subjects, if not initiated by them. And you can see, in the eyes of those being photographed, the sentiment my friends and I shared in the photo booth. Confident, comfortable, proud to belong to one another. Photographs like Plush Pony, #2 (1992) pay homage to a constellation of community members who were themselves activists, people who fought to make sure that their histories weren’t forgotten.
Despite her lifelong difficulties with belonging, Aguilar’s art pieces were populated with people, her public talks filled with fond anecdotes about those she had lost and still loved. I recently watched footage from a 2015 lecture that Aguilar gave at The California Institute of the Arts. In the video, she flips from image to image, lovingly identifying her subjects in a soft-spoken, soothing, and slightly lisped voice, as if introducing them at a house party: “This is Paul. This is Eddie. This is my friend Pat.”
Some photos document the entire cycle of a relationship, like the series centered around her beloved great-aunt Bea. Aguilar describes Bea, at CalArts, as “the foundation of my life.” We see Bea embracing Aguilar in one photograph, then shrunken into a hospital bed in the next.
Another suite of images features acclaimed writer Gil Cuadros, who died of AIDS in 1996 and gained posthumous fame for his short story and poetry collection City of God, which speaks to the social impact of the illness within the context of the Chicano Rights Movement. “Every body of work I ever did, he was the first picture I took,” Aguilar muses, as she navigates through photographs of Cuadros. First we see him as a confident and soulful teenager; eventually, there’s a picture of him in death, the skin of his face clinging to his cheek bones.
In this time of isolation, when we’re all struggling as much with our inner demons as we are with distance, Aguilar’s work is useful to examine: It tight-ropes elated self-discovery and profound alienation. As Monica Uszerowicz wrote in Hyperallergic, Aguilar “documented her struggle with suicidal ideation, the acceptance of her own body and mind—that trajectory between bouts of depression and self-love, a narrative that never knows any linearity.”
Series like Stillness (1999), Motion (1999), and Center (2001) display the body profoundly one with, but starkly standing against, the natural landscape. In her photographs, Aguilar played with the elasticity of collective and individual selfhoods, collapsing them in some images while expanding them in others.
Aguilar’s 1996 Nude Self Portraits series also speaks to this sublime loneliness of being contained in a body. By featuring her naked body as a fixture on the Southwestern landscape, where five generations of her family have lived, Aguilar presents her body as solace, her body as negotiation, an offering. She excavates the theme of isolation, but also makes her peace with solitude.
I think of Nature Self-Portrait #14 (1996), which captures Aguilar looking into a small pool of water. She seems to be alluding to the tragic unattainableness of a true self-image, the inability to ever truly know oneself, and to ever truly know others. In looking at these photographs I am reminded of my friend Sebastian’s paintings, each one a glowing vortex of social symbiosis. I can map the stages of my youth against each arc of Sebastian’s rented doorways, wherever he’s lived across LA. His friends have become my friends, my network expanding person by person until we’ve become a community. His work mirrors the joys and conflicts of this closeness— figures huddle together, exclaiming behind cupped hands, frozen in the ecstasy and terror of exchange.
Most of his paintings are punctuated by a spread of fuchsia, salmon, and mauve pinks—pink, the color of our insides, the color of exposure. His subjects are all in the process of becoming deeply known, whether they want to be or not. And as with Aguilar’s photographs, wrapped up in Sebastian’s work is a deep melancholy, a mixture of sweetness and sharpness that feels like an unexpected reproach from someone you love. It betrays an understanding of the ways in which our communities can fail us, captures the alienation we can experience even when we’re in relation, and gives shape to the sneaking suspicion that being known might not be enough.
Despite its sprawling nature, LA is a place of abundant intimacy. The hubs of care that make up my social scene are rarely bars or nightclubs, but friends’ apartment steps, the cracked concrete, chain-linked fences, and sagging lawn chairs of their backyards. A night sky thickening with laughter and cigarette smoke. It’s these places I miss now.
LA today looks like a doctored photograph—all cars and traffic edited out. If I wanted to, I could zip from the East to West side in less than 20 minutes, and there is something wholly disturbing about this ease. In contrast, LA’s wildlife is literally growing over us: The birds are losing their minds, singing their heads off, and I recently ran into a coyote in the middle of the day, ambling, unbothered, across the streets when he saw me. In many ways, LA has always been a city that negotiates the collective, has long held a multitude of contradictions—abundance and emptiness, loneliness and togetherness. Laura Aguilar began observing this world of dichotomies some thirty years ago; as we find ourselves caught in today’s Russian nesting doll of conflicting realities, her work can help us see that the city has always been this way.
During a time in which the social responsibility of loneliness weighs heavily on us, Laura Aguilar’s work also acknowledges some of our anguish. From Aguilar’s lens, loneliness and community have always been two sides of the same coin. Her images shed light on both the power of community and the urgent necessity of being alone. They remind us that loneliness—acting alone, dissolving or symbolizing the self—can hold political depth beyond the ambiguous or gestural. Her work can teach us how to live side-by-side with this isolation and communion, the in-between of our existence.