Anthony Hernandez, ed. Erin O’Toole

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2016 by SFMOMA (here) and DAP (here). Hardcover, 280 pages, with 245 color reproductions. Includes an introduction by Robert Adams, essays by Erin O’Toole and Ralph Rugoff, and a conversation between the artist and Lewis Baltz. Produced in conjunction with retrospective exhibit held at SFMOMA from 9/24/16 through 1/1/17 (here). (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: I don’t know which is more unjust: that an artist of Anthony Hernandez’s caliber has no gallery in New York; or that his retrospective (now at SFMOMA) won’t travel to a museum in his home town of Los Angeles.

An artist who since the mid-1970s has acutely observed the vicissitudes of the city, making bodies of work in black-and-white and color that are distinguished by anti-sentimentality and worldly grace, he has exhibited widely and published more than ten monographs. As this catalog proves, his oeuvre is as consistently tough as it is unpredictable.

Both art capitals are at fault, but L.A. has more to be ashamed of. No American city of its size and cultural sway has been photographed as avidly and been as haphazardly analyzed by its institutions. No museum has mounted a comprehensive exhibition of the city in photographs, a history that would chronicle its 19th century nascence as a desert village, its rise as a colossal engine in the oil, entertainment, aircraft, and shipping industries, and its magnetic attraction for generations of migrants, from every corner of the U.S. and many countries around the world.

The photographers who examined its character during the 20th century may not be as illustrious as those who have memorialized Paris, New York, and London. But in the last 20 years local historians have identified many candidates for a survey, in books such as Looking at Los Angeles (2005) and Both Sides of Sunset (2015). A partial list of native as well as imported talent, documentary and art photographers, would include C.C. Pierce, Edward Weston, Don Normark, Grant Mudford, William Reagh, Bob Willoughby, George Tate, Julius Shulman, Dennis Hopper, William Claxton, Edward Ruscha, Max Yavno, John Divola, John Baldessari, Lewis Baltz, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Robert Adams, John Free, Catherine Opie, Sam Fentriss, and Matthew Brandt.

L.A. is a difficult place to photograph well. The unvarying weather and seasons don’t offer the usual atmospherics that artists in northerly climates can rely on as pictorial aids. People spend more time in their cars than on the streets, limiting opportunities for social friction. What’s more, for over a century Hollywood cinematographers have colonized our imaginations with seductive wall-sized fictions. Even the most ambitious still photographers, with only a gallery or book at their disposal, can’t help feeling small or irrelevant by comparison. Perhaps the most persuasive visual account of the city ever made is Thom Anderson’s compilation of film clips, Los Angeles Plays Itself (2004).

Hernandez has avoided these problems by studiously deleting references to the comforting landmarks familiar to movie or TV viewers. Although he has photographed here for almost 50 years, this catalog offers no glimpses of the L.A. Times tower, the L.A. Courthouse, Union Station, Griffith Park, the Bradbury building, Malibu bungalows, tree-lined Beverly Hills streets, the Hollywood sign, or a nighttime view of the San Fernando Valley from Mulholland Drive.

Instead, he focuses on scenes that every visitor has noticed but prefers not to photograph—the daily monotony of the commercial architecture and an urban design that prioritizes traffic over human beings.

Hernandez recontextulizes L.A.’s symbols to evoke the anxiety and deprivation that they conceal. He views his home town neither as glamorous nor as particularly modern. In one of his Automotive Landscapes from 1969, palm trees are the backdrop for a low-rent garage where cars are parked on grass strips as they await repair, and a pick-up truck, already being dissected on the street, has a tire off and the hood up—a scene more reminiscent of village life than a humming metropolis. The elevated loops and slabs of L.A.’s futuristic expressways from the ’60 are nowhere to be found in Hernandez’s pictures. Instead, in his 1988 series, Landscapes for the Homeless, he takes us beneath the concrete overpasses, where the forlorn have bedded down and built chairs out of plasterboard for their open air living rooms.

Even in his early work, people aren’t at ease. The brochures and travelogues that the city boosters published by the millions after WWII have deceived them. When he took his camera to the shore in 1969, he chose to portray sun bathers at Long Beach or Santa Monica lying on the sand in their street clothes, alone and sleeping, without the typical southern California props of bikinis, surfboards, boardwalks, mountains, or even water. His pictures aren’t restful. If these people are having American dreams about success and money, it’s because they have failed to achieve enough of either. Places that the movies have imbued with noir intrigue and doomed romance, such as the Los Angeles River or the Second Ave. Tunnel, are barely recognizable in his photographs. Outdoors, he tends to choose maximum depth of field and a long, unprivileged view that assesses what a mess we’ve made of things; indoors, he often finds a wall or corner and make its industrial-painted color the heart of the picture. He gravitates toward holes in the ground and the dead spots in abandoned houses.

Hernandez began as a street photographer and to this day self-identifies as one. The faces and figures of his fellow citizens, many seen in looming close-up, owe a lot to the confrontational aesthetic of Winogrand, a friend and mentor. Not until 1979, when Hernandez switched from handheld 35 mm to a larger format, photographing people as they stood and waited at bus stops or fished in the lakes and rivers of Los Angeles, did he find himself as an artist.

These are his masterworks. Initially off-putting, they render the city in flat, noonday, even, neutral tones rather than the “golden hour” shadows beloved by cinematographers. This smooth, silvery black-and-white palette can be found in Todd Papageorge’s photographs of New York but was unusual in photographs of L.A. at the time, except perhaps in Ruscha’s more casually processed and jaundiced views.

Hernandez has always aimed his camera at common areas—the property no individual owns. Winogrand, of course, did that, too. (In his retrospective you could count on almost one hand, the times he photographed in a private home.) But Hernandez deliberately concentrates on the unlucky who don’t have the financial resources to own much of anything, whether a car that would transport them to their jobs or a house to sleep in. They own the air they breathe, the ground they sleep on for the night, the clothes on their backs, and that’s about all. As his friend Lewis Baltz points out in a joint interview here, Hernandez has photographed “the defeated” who are, he says, “the majority” of Americans.

The one exception to this bleak take on the L.A. class system is a series on Rodeo Drive (1984). Begun as an assignment from a local magazine editor, they were his first effort in color, and his last to include people (rather than their traces) in the frame. A comedy about branding—this was a time, satirized by Brett Easton Ellis in American Psycho, when the luxury labels you wore and high-end stores that accepted your credit cards determined self-worth—the pictures are a return to the street aesthetic of his youth, albeit in softer tones that add an acidic layer or irony to these scenes of competitive consumption.

Erin O’Toole’s excellent catalog essay follows Hernandez’s career from its improbable beginnings through successive changes of course. The son of Mexican immigrants, he is self-taught as an artist. (He must have been the only U.S. Army soldier in Vietnam whose off hours were spent reading Artforum, a gift subscription from his aunt.) His associations with various photographers and curators in New York and L.A. during the ‘70s, one infers from O’Toole, have altered only slightly a strong, self-directed sensibility. His large color prints of derelict spaces in Rome and Baltimore and Oakland certainly have more in common with the Minimalism of Judd or L.A.’s “Light and Space” artists—or with the experimental cinema of Ernie Gehr—than with street photography, as normally understood.

As I am unable to visit the show, this catalog will have to suffice. (My only gripes are that, no doubt due to budget constraints, it lacks a list of Hernandez’s many solo and group exhibitions, articles written about him, a chronology, and an index—standard backup materials for a retrospective.)

The generously illustrated contents are the compensation,  revealing Hernandez’s persistent engagement with landscape, and his evolving, complicated feelings for Los Angeles—an affectionate, weary acceptance of its overwhelming structural ugliness. Leafing through the pages, it seems unfair and odd that he isn’t generally recognized as a local hero, as Ruscha or Opie so often are. As this book demonstrates, with supportive testimony from O’Toole, Baltz, and Ralph Rugoff, Hernandez has been for decades a photographer who will be essential for understanding one of the world’s essential cities during the last half of the 20th century. He deserves every honor he has received with this show and catalog, and more.

Collector’s POV: Anthony Hernandez is represented by Galerie Thomas Zander in Cologne (here). Hernandez’ work has little recent secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

Read more about: Anthony Hernandez, Distributed Art Publishers, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

One comment

  1. Victor Rini /

    To that list of Los Angeles documentary photographers, I’d add Leonard Nadel and Herman Schultheis. And one notable “import” was Vivian Maier who captured a fair sample while passing through town in 1955 and perhaps other times. A comprehensive biography is really needed on her.

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