When Anthony Hernandez was a street-wandering teenager in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles in the 1960s, a friend of his gave him, on a whim, a book about basic photography. His first thought was, fashion photographers get money and women. So he took a photo course at East L.A. College, discovered darkroom artifice, and began shooting on the turf he knew best: downtown LA and the local beaches. Thus began a vigorous 45-year career that has turned an aimless street kid into the subject of a major retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. His steady output of far-flung series has ranged from street photography to landscapes to interiors, black-and-white to color, regional to foreign, closeup to panoramic, wealthy to homeless subjects, urban to desert terrain, and from stark realism to formal near-abstraction. Ever the explorer, Hernandez has followed only his own instincts about what is artistically compelling, impervious to current trends. He is no photographer of fashions.
A key figure for Hernandez has been Edward Weston. “I wanted to make pictures that had some kind of vision and clarity, and I thought Weston was a great visionary.” Like Weston, he became keenly aware of the nuances of light. “Even now, particularly with color, I’m really drawn to this kind of soft, reflected, very even light. That’s something that comes up again and again. It just hits you and you try to capture it.” As he was developing his aesthetic, he came into contact with Light and Space artists like James Turrell and Robert Irwin, whose work suggestively helped him hone his ideas about photography as an exploration of pure perception. This and other epiphanies would lead him, eventually, away from his candid street portraits (reminiscent of Garry Winogrand though less ingratiatingly theatrical) to images that sought to define Los Angeles in broader terms — countering some of the mythos that has been woven into film and literature. Automotive Landscapes not only pointed Hernandez toward the city’s dominating car culture but, significantly, to its entropic and least glamorous embodiment: junkers and parts strewn in a scrapyard, older vehicles in mid-repair. In Public Transit Areas, rarely depicted underclass citizens are seen waiting at bus stops that punctuate forlorn stretches of LA streets. Going cross-town to Rodeo Drive, and to color for the first time, Hernandez caught zombie-like, often garishly attired consumers both aware and unaware of his roving camera (published as Rodeo Drive 1984). But these would be his last shots of people.
Hernandez loves walking and is a tireless flâneur. It has taken him to places in LA that most of its inhabitants who drive don’t see, or don’t care to. “Even today, I think what I’m doing is still street work. LA is my studio.” As he roamed, he began spotting the encampments of the city’s homeless, and took photographs not of them, but of their habitats — crude furniture, scavenged clothing, kitchen items, and so on. The resulting images, at once poignant and formally intuitive, have combined into one of his most acclaimed series — Landscapes for the Homeless. They describe in poetic still-life compositions an LA that is growing rapidly, as the chasm widens between rich and poor, and has turned political as tensions increase between gentrifiers and human rights activists. Prior to that series, Hernandez came upon a shooting range in Angeles National Forest at the edge of LA (after first discovering such a site in Las Vegas) and instead of photographing the gun-toters he aimed at their residue: spent shells forming patterns on the ground, tattered targets, and especially, the remains of odd items used as “victims” in their shooting sprees. It would be his threshold from the bluntly human to the evidentiary — signs of humanity that form distinctive, desultory traces of modern civilization.
Landscapes for the Homeless #18 (1989) © Anthony Hernandez
Hernandez’ walkabouts also took him back to a childhood playground, the LA River. Some of his haunting images of storm drains, plunging deep into the center of the frame, become exquisitely textured mandalas. Once again, he reveals the city’s hidden crannies, and turns lead into gold, finding the remarkable in the ordinary. Quite organically, the work that has occupied him in the last two decades has been mining the interiors of derelict buildings, beginning as a fellow at the American Academy in Rome in 1998-99. Not wanting to capture that capital’s too-easy classical relics, he began exploring what can be called contemporary ruins, unfinished and abandoned structures in which he found unintended pearls of visual elegance and mystery. It’s a subject that has taken him to Oakland, Baltimore, and around Southern California’s deserts and suburban tracts. Hernandez explains,
A lot of people make pictures of interiors, but I don’t see many that are strong or compelling and revealing and I think my pictures are. Maybe that has to do with the way I formally see something and present it. People would ask me, isn’t that kind of depressing? If you thought about it, you probably wouldn’t want to go into that building. But it’s where I’m challenged. I have to go in and see what’s there.
Pictures for Rome #13 (1999) © Anthony Hernandez
It is that restless searching for the thing that no one else has yet seen that defines Hernandez’ life’s work. Though he continually describes it as focused, specific, and straightforward, there are formalist judgments made that result in a deepening and ever-refining art. In later series, the found details of homeless sites (Forever) and of the LA River’s detritus (Everything) are distilled into vivid compositions whose color, texture and allusion approach the intellectual grandeur of iconic abstract painting. Hernandez had fully arrived at the visionary destination he proposed for himself at the beginning of his journey.
The catalogue of his retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is Anthony Hernandez, edited by Erin O’Toole and including excellent essays by O’Toole, Robert Adams and Ralph Rugoff, and an archival dialogue between Hernandez and Lewis Baltz (D.A.P., 2016). Exhibition runs through January 1, 2017.
Lead image: Pictures for Rome #12 (1999) © Anthony Hernandez