Anthony Hernandez’s L.A. has no palm trees, surfers, or white sandy beaches.
Hernandez, who has moved from small-scale black and white to large-scale color photos, from pictures of people to urban landscapes, and from a 35-mm camera to larger models that require a tripod, captures a different side of the city. In the first-ever retrospective of his work, at SFMOMA, the 160 or so photos show people on deserted streets waiting for a bus, objects washed up on the banks of the Los Angeles River, and broken-down trucks and cars. Rather than celebrities, the people in his photos are destitute or working-class, trying to navigate a desolate, sprawling city.
The exhibition starts with Hernandez’s black-and-white photos, including one of his first, of a storefront church. The public spaces, fishing areas, and transit hubs show people trying to make use of such places, which seem not to have been designed with them in mind. In one, a woman awkwardly lies at the edge of a grimy beach while a little girl fishes. Photographer Edward Weston inspired Hernandez, and in a twist on Weston’s photograph of his wife nude on a sand dune, Hernandez photographed street people sprawled on the beach. With the series Rodeo Drive in the mid-’80s, Hernandez switched to color, which he’s been working in since.
Some of Hernandez’s photos have particular resonance for San Francisco, such as those from his series Landscapes of the Homeless, published in 1991, which depict the things left behind at homeless encampments in L.A.: a red apple, a belt, a razor, and brush in one photo, and a tan blanket strung up behind some ivy in another. The show also includes Forever, with photos Hernandez took from the perspective of people living on the street, looking out from an encampment, as well as Everything, a series of photos on the banks of the L.A. River, where Hernandez played as a kid.
Erin O’Toole, an associate curator of photography at SFMOMA who put Anthony Hernandez together, says she’s wanted to curate a show of Hernandez’s since she saw his photos while working on an exhibition of California photography about six years ago. O’Toole, along with Neal Benezra, the museum’s director, acknowledged the role of Sandra Phillips — SFMOMA’s senior photography curator for 30 years and now curator emerita — in bringing attention to Hernandez’s work. He’d long been admired by photographers, curators, and collectors, but the general public had not known his work well.
“I feel like I won the lottery,” O’Toole said. “This is the kind of project curator’s dream about. Tony is well respected by his colleagues, has a large body of work, never got stuck in a groove, and he’s always pushing himself out of his comfort zone.”
Hernandez said he’s glad SFMOMA has more of his work than any other institution. He’s often called L.A. his “studio,” and with a working space so large, he’ll never run out of things to photograph. Lately, he’s been focusing on South L.A. — formerly known as South Central — and the exhibition ends with a mural-sized print called South Central, of a textured purple wall.
“It’s such a rich area,” Hernandez said of the neighborhood. “It’s a gift to be able to work there.”
Anthony Hernandez, Through Jan. 1, 2017, at SFMOMA, 151 Third Street, $19-$25, 415-357-4000 or sfmoma.org.