JTF (just the facts): A total of total of 14 color and black-and-white photographs, alternately framed in white/black, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the smaller project room. 8 of the works are archival pigment prints, made between 1988 and 1990 and printed recently. The prints are sized either 40×40 or 40×50 inches and are available in editions of 5. The other 6 works are archival pigment prints made in 1979 or 1980 and printed recently. These prints are each sized 28×40 inches and are available in editions of 7. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Coming on the heels of Anthony Hernandez’ highly regarded SFMOMA retrospective in 2016 (catalog reviewed here), this two part gallery show offers the New York audience an overdue flavor of what those on the West Coast have long known – that the Los Angeles native has been making superlative work for decades and deserves to be better recognized.
The smaller side room here offers the earliest glimpse of Hernandez’ approach. Unlike most of the street photographers working in the 1960s and 1970s (when the images from the Public Transit Areas series were made) who used smaller more portable cameras to capture the fleeting juxtapositions of passersby (think Winogrand and Friedlander), Hernandez was working the broad avenues of LA with a large format camera, slowly setting it up at bus stops around town and making pictures of those waiting.
The modern prints on view here have been enlarged significantly from what Hernandez might have originally made at the time, but the crisp detail of the negatives makes these bigger images shimmer with edge to edge clarity. The photographer generally positioned his camera looking at the bus stop from the side, making the arrangement of the scenes taper to the horizon using the edge of the street as an arrow straight line. This placement also had the effect of putting interrupting telephone poles and street lights in central locations. The arrangement of nearby walls, storefronts, and vacant lots is also meticulously squared off into receding perspective (not unlike the severity of Lewis Baltz). The closer we look at these photographs, the more formally precise they become.
But balancing this strict rigor is Hernandez’ attention to the humanity in these uniquely LA scenes. In a resolutely car town, the people taking the bus are the have nots, those on the outside. He shows us the strivers (crouched down using the bus bench as a place to work) and the lonely, the elderly and the poor, the stranded and the resigned, all waiting and not entirely enamored with the guy invading their usually forgotten space. While a few scowl with wary disregard, most just watch down the street with weary anticipation, wondering when the bus will arrive. Hernandez’ patience is often rewarded, with the alignment of two polka dot dresses or the cross cultural pairings of old and young. The increase in scale of these new prints invites us to step right into these moments, the sidewalk at our feet pulling us into these ordered dioramas of Southern California life.
The photographs in the main gallery space come from roughly a decade later and make a decisive transition into color. As a series, Landscapes for the Homeless had the obvious potential to wander into exploitation – its images of the makeshift encampments of homeless people found under overpasses and in overgrown areas cross into an area of trespassing intimacy that many might find uncomfortable. But once again Hernandez approaches the edges of Los Angeles with honesty, tenderness, and respect. While these pictures are structured with an almost architectural precision, they document the emptiness of transitional non-places, where just a hint of human habitation turns the wildness into personal space.
Because these images document a small echo of use, they often have the feel of still lifes. An old fleece jacket covered with yellow pollen hangs in a tree, a grocery cart stands empty amid the underbrush, and pants are hung inside out on the branches of a bush to dry, each the deliberate placement of a person trying to make a life from nothing. Hernandez also makes note of particular efforts in shelter construction, from a cardboard box used as bed in the dry grass to a chair made from broken sheetrock. In each, he takes careful note of the subtleties of color, especially when the afternoon light burnishes plywood or a yellow blanket pokes out from the private lushness of green ivy. These prints are also modern enlargements, and once again, their scale makes the scenes enveloping and embracing, rather than critical, arms length inspections.
What makes Hernandez’ photographs of particular importance is that he saw the surfaces of Los Angeles with the eyes of a local. He has consistently made pictures that are both technically beautiful and socially aware, digging into the issues of the community while still centering himself within the conceptual structures of the photography world. His rediscovery is gaining momentum, and tightly edited shows of his best work (like this one) can only help to spread the word.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The larger color prints are $18000, while the black and white prints are $10000 each. Hernandez’ work has little recent secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.