Anthony Hernandez began his career in the late 1970s as a street photographer investigating a seldom-seen side of a frequently documented city. “The rare product of a long and serious engagement with Los Angeles that does not traffic in Hollywood ideals,” his work “explores the visual qualities of the Los Angeles known by its invisible majority” of Hispanic, black and Asian people, writes SFMOMA photography curator Erin O’Toole in her essay about Hernandez’s career, which appears in the catalogue for his retrospective exhibition at the museum, on view until January 1.
The son of Mexican immigrants who lost his father and best friend at an early age, and who by 16 had seen enough of gang life and heroin use to walk away from both, Hernandez began photographing the L.A. he knew after he returned from Vietnam, O’Toole recalls in her history of the artist. O’Toole’s essay is full of fascinating details. Such as: A “cool aunt” encouraged Hernandez’s artistic impulse by sending him Artforum while he was in Vietnam; a patron landlord in L.A. charged him minimal rent so he could pursue his work; he befriended Lewis Baltz (who collaborated with Hernandez on a text for the catalogue), was influenced by Edward Weston, sold work to John Szarkowski at MoMA and crossed paths with Garry Winogrand while they both photographed on the streets of L.A.
With the help of a National Endowment for the Arts grant, Hernandez shifted from 35mm to large-format photography in the 1980s. When he chose to photograph L.A.’s car culture, he made pictures of old, beaten and broken automobiles and repair shops. He photographed Rodeo Drive in color in 1984, then stopped photographing people, focusing instead on landscapes impacted by humans. He made pictures of shooting ranges covered in blown-apart refuse and spent cartridges, and a series depicting the camps of the homeless. In the past two decades, he’s made color photographs outside of L.A., investigating “urban ruins” in cities he’s visited during residencies or during his travels to Idaho, where he and his wife, the writer Judith Freeman, live part-time.
In his introduction to the catalogue, Robert Adams notes that Hernandez has looked critically at the world around him without despairing. “The world he shows deserves reverence—it has a beautiful purity that endures in spite of our carelessness.” —Conor Risch