Book Review Anthony Hernandez. By Anthony Hernandez Reviewed by Adam Bell As a native of Los Angeles, Anthony Hernandez’s rigorous and tough photographs have examined the social and political landscape of the city for over forty years, teasing apart assumptions and forcing us to look at places we’d rather drive past and ignore.
Reviewed by Adam Bell
Photographs by Anthony Hernandez. Text by Robert Adams, Erin O'Toole, Ralph Rugoff, Anthony Hernandez, and Lewis Baltz.
D.A.P./SFMOMA, San Francisco, USA, 2016. 280 pp., 245 color illustrations, 9½x11".
Los Angeles has always been an unruly city, easily reduced to visual clichés, but forever defiant in reality. Yet the seductive mythology of Los Angeles has long been tempered by critique and counter-visions. From the neo-realist poetry of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and the exhaustive catalog of Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself to the dark satire of Nathanael West and noirish grit of Raymond Chandler, artists have offered insightful counter-points to the bombastic narrative of wealth, fame, and reinvention that reveal the inequities of race and class that stratify the city. As a native of Los Angeles, Anthony Hernandez’s rigorous and tough photographs have examined the social and political landscape of the city for over forty years, teasing apart assumptions and forcing us to look at places we’d rather drive past and ignore. Now the subject of a major retrospective at SFMoMA, Hernandez is finally getting the attention his work deserves. From his early street photography to his current work on the aftermath of the housing crisis in California, his eponymous monograph is an incredible collection that allows us to measure the full breadth of his remarkable achievement.
The book opens with a selection of Hernandez’s street photography from the late-60s and early-70s. Shot on the streets of Los Angeles and Saigon, where he returned after serving as an Army medic during the Vietnam War, Hernandez’s early work recalls Garry Winogrand, Tod Papageorge and others. Although less openly lyrical or whimsical than some of his contemporaries, Hernandez’s images display a keen eye for pointed social commentary and often direct our attention to the subtle interactions of race and class in a dense urban landscape. While Hernandez showed great promise as a classic street photographer (and was strongly encouraged by Winogrand), he quickly moved on, not only questioning what it meant to be a street photographer in a car-centric city such as Los Angeles, but also realizing the need to find his own voice in what had become an overcrowded field. In response, Hernandez shifted his focus from the isolated drama of the street and began considering how people use or don’t use the city. This subtle shift allowed Hernandez to begin examining the larger social, political, and racial dynamics of the urban landscape.
This new focus is prominently displayed in several bodies of work Hernandez began in the late-70s—Public Transit Areas, Public Use Areas, Public Fishing Areas, and Automotive Landscapes. Using a 5x7 view camera, which resembles the aspect ratio of the 35mm but allowed greater resolution, Hernandez’s black-and-white images from these projects are panoramic in scope and richly detailed. They depict bus stops; public fountains and parks outside corporate office buildings; desolate fishing spots; and what he’d labeled automotive landscapes, or junkyards and garages. In a city long associated with cars and the insular freedom they afford, Hernandez turned his attention to the space where the, largely, poor and working class congregate to eat their lunch, fish, or wait for the bus on their way to work or home. These were places you get by walking and staying close to the ground rather than speeding past (in a private car) to another destination. As Gerry Badger notes in the fantastic book that collected this work—Waiting, Sitting, Fishing, and Some Automobiles—as social landscapes, the images reveal the racial and class stratification of Los Angeles in a direct and powerful manner. Although the format and focus of subsequent work would change, parsing this reality visually would become the heart of much of Hernandez’s work to come.
Rodeo Drive, his next project, signaled a temporary return to street photography and offered a pointed critique of the vacuous shopping culture of Downtown Los Angeles in the mid-80s. Hernandez also switched to color and didn’t go back. Although it was the last time people were featured prominently, they would never disappear entirely. Just as his panoramic work took a step backwards to reveal a complex, social landscape, Hernandez’s subsequent work inched closer and closer still, looking for traces and evidence within that landscape. Shooting Sites, Hernandez’s first non-figurative body of work, examined the ravaged landscape of shooting ranges outside Los Vegas and Los Angeles, and led to his most critically acclaimed body of work, Landscapes for the Homeless, in the late-80s. Documenting homeless encampments in and around Los Angeles, these richly detailed tableaus again directly confronted the uses of the urban landscape and offered a devastating indictment of society. As Robert Adams notes in the book’s introduction, the “for” in the project’s title should be read as accusatory. Filled with trash, cigarette butts, and makeshift furniture, the images are beautiful and shocking. Never simply reveling in the messy detritus of the chaotic landscape, Hernandez images humanize his subjects through his sumptuous attention to what they’ve left behind.
In the series to come, Hernandez turned his attention to subjects as varied as thrift stores, abandoned buildings in Rome and East Baltimore, welfare offices in Los Angeles, and the tunnels and embankments of the LA River. Most recently, he has looked at the failed desert communities outside Los Angeles hit hard by the economic collapse of 2008. Over this period, Hernandez’s work became stylistically more consistent but also increasingly abstract. Often using a square format and long lens, Hernandez focused on both the human traces within the landscape like the inky soot stains of a cook fire on a concrete ceiling or a graffiti-marked wall, but also more telescopic views that veer towards abstracted studies of color and light. Throughout his long career, Hernandez has admirably challenged himself to find new ways of exploring the social landscape.
While Hernandez has produced numerous books over the years, many are out-of-print or expensive. This monograph makes available a wide range of his work, while also highlighting work never before published. Along with new essays by Erin O’Toole, the associate curator of photography at SFMoMA, and Ralph Rugoff, who worked with Hernandez on his Pictures for Rome project, the book also reprints a wonderful interview/essay by Lewis Baltz that originally appeared in the catalog for Landscapes for the Homeless. Although Hernandez is not unknown, he does not have the same widespread recognition as many of his friends and colleagues, like Robert Adams or Lewis Baltz. Thankfully, this retrospective and monograph should help address that oversight. —Adam Bell
ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer. His work has been widely exhibited, and his writing and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Afterimage, The Art Book Review, The Brooklyn Rail, fototazo, Foam Magazine, Lay Flat, photo-eye and Paper-Journal. His books include The Education of a Photographer and Vision Anew: The Lens and Screen Arts. He is currently on staff and faculty at the MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department at the School of Visual Art. (www.adambbell.com and blog.adambbell.com)