by Maria Porges
The Japanese word sodachi, I was once told, describes the influence of where you were born and grew up. You are formed, the thought goes, by your early experiences of place, in a way that remains constant throughout a lifetime.
For photographer Anthony Hernandez, whose career retrospective is on view at SFMOMA through January 1, that location is South Central Los Angeles and LA in general. This region is the center around which his life and practice have revolved over some 45 years. Hernandez has traveled to far-flung locations — Washington, DC, Rome, London, New York, Baltimore, Las Vegas — living in some, visiting others, taking pictures in all of them. But the majority of his
photographs record first the people and then, increasingly, the wide, grim avenues and debris-strewn hidden corners of the City of Angels. This is not the dream world of the movies, of pretty rich people, or of midcentury detective noir fiction. It’s the city of the working poor and the homeless; of vistas of abandoned cars and glittering trash, of the cement culverts that form the channel through which, unnaturally, the LA River travels. Photographs Hernandez has taken in other places suggest this same unpeopled bleakness — prime examples being the Pictures for Rome series (of modern ruins, not ancient ones) and the derelict structures and thrown-away possessions depicted in Oakland and East Baltimore.
Apart from some community college darkroom classes and a summer workshop with Lee Friedlander, Hernandez is virtually self-taught. He started recording his South Central neighborhood with a 35mm Nikon in the late ‘60s. These small black-and-white images in the first gallery feel familiar in that their framing of people and places evokes the work of other photographers of the period such as Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and Friedlander (though the artist maintains he was only “vaguely aware” of them). Hernandez did know about Edward Weston; his first series, described as “a slyly humorous homage to the California photographer,” shows sprawled figures on Santa Monica Beach — not sunbathers or nudes like Weston’s that feature his wife on a dune, but fully-dressed, worn-out workers trying to take a nap. These early pictures are humorous, but they are also, as Santa Monica #14 (1970) demonstrates, beautiful, classic, carefully framed compositions. The two women, surrounded by a sea of footprint-covered sand, are positioned perfectly, like dancers in a recumbent ballet.
In this early period of his career, Hernandez was hard working, ambitious and fearless. In 1970, he took his work to the Pasadena Art Museum — one of the few institutions then with a photo curator — just in time to be included in a survey of California’s emerging photographers. The curator, Fred Parker, introduced Hernandez to Lewis Baltz, a graduate student who would soon emerge as a key figure in the New Topographics movement, and as a friend as well as a stylistic influence on and professional mentor to Hernandez, helping him navigate the byzantine social and political workings of the art world.
That same year, Hernandez hitchhiked to New York where he showed a portfolio of prints to John Szarkowski, MOMA curator of photography, who bought two for the museum and introduced Hernandez to Winogrand and Diane Arbus. Still, by 1975, despite the acclaim Hernandez’ street pictures had received from curators and fellow photographers, he’d reached an impasse. The problem was a lack of money to finance the travels that, up to that point, had fueled his work.
Seeking a fresh approach, he began photographing cars, a quintessentially LA subject. But instead of idealizing them, he focused on the grit of used car lots, junkyards and dirty garages, swapping his Nikon for a tripod-mounted 5 x 7-inch Deardorff camera, which enabled larger, sharper panoramas of empty lots and dusty avenues stretching out into the distance. A good example of the latter is Public Transit Areas #46 (1979). In this, as with many such punishingly sunlit images, people wait at a bus stop, seemingly unaware of being photographed. (Hernandez says it helped to be a relatively unthreatening Hispanic man, but the obliviousness of his subjects is still startling.) As with the Santa Monica pictures, the disciplined balance of elements in the composition is both striking and humane. Two other series from this period show recreational areas frequented by poor and working-class residents and small pockets of public space where office workers might rest or eat lunch.
Nineteen eighty-four marked the year Hernandez switched to color film – and to a different set of subjects: pedestrians on Rodeo Drive. They appear Fellini-esque, an association called forth not only by vivid red accents (a result of the film stock Hernandez chose) but also by the hallucinogenic strangeness of the period’s clothing and hairstyles. Consider the ‘do sported by the blank-faced woman in Rodeo Drive #7 (1984), or the red-framed sunglasses worn by her escort. In any case, Hernandez never returned to black and white. More importantly, it was also his last series depicting people.
The photos that followed showed only traces of human presence. In Las Vegas, where he was an artist-in-residence at the University of Nevada in 1986, Hernandez found himself captivated by an unauthorized shooting range on the outskirts of town. The resulting series, Shooting
Sites, shows shells, shredded targets and bits of mannequins used as stand-ins for people. In Angeles National Forest 3 (1988), distant, hazy mountains and a foreground piled with spent shells suggest a voyeuristic vision of a post-apocalyptic crime scene.
The Homeless series that came next is equally uncompromising in its combination of difficult subject matter and rigorous composition. In the early ‘80s, Hernandez took note of the proliferation of improvised settlements under freeways and behind chain link fences. With wary respect for the occupants, he worked during the day, photographing what was left behind in campsites. Careful not to disturb meager groceries or belongings, Hernandez presents his findings as compelling evidence, each picture a matter-of-fact but wrenching record of societal breakdown. In Landscapes for the Homeless 1 (1988), a backlit plastic bag suspended from a tree branch glows like an angel, the yellow of the dry grass behind it resonating wildly with a striped purple garment crumpled on the ground. Such scenes resemble a war zone, and Hernandez recalls the experience of recording them as the most difficult of his career.
His work of the past two decades has continued to explore his earlier concerns and approaches. Everything (2002) takes us into the Los Angeles River’s culverts; Forever (2007-12) presents additional homeless encampments, but from the residents’ point of view. In his most recent series, Discarded (2012-15), Hernandez chronicles the outer edges of LA, where
ruins stand as vivid reminders of the housing market’s failure. Abandoned buildings, like the one in Discarded #50 (2015), show late afternoon light slanting into a stripped shell of a room; it turns everything a marigold hue, making broken glass and debris glitter sparkle like diamonds. In the final galleries, the pictures are large and spectacular — inkjet, rather than chromogenic prints. The show even includes a billboard-sized print on vinyl of a pink-purple wall in South Central LA, shot close up, creating a kind of you-are-there experience of Hernandez’ familiar haunts, bringing the show full circle.
“Being aware,” says the artist, “is more important than the evidence of the awareness on a piece of paper. Being sensitive to what passes in front of you is more important than what passes into the camera.” This long-overdue retrospective is certainly proof of that.
In the end, one wonders why has it taken so long for Hernandez to receive this level of recognition. Whatever the reason, it’s good that it’s finally here in this exhibition of compelling, sometimes difficult and deeply memorable photographs by a great American artist.
# # #
Anthony Hernandez @ SFMOMA through January 1, 2017.
About the Author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of nearly 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.