ART : A Career Begins to Click : Photographer Anthony Hernandez survived gangs, Vietnam and two decades of struggle to win wide recognition for his work.

Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Anthony Hernandez was born and raised in L.A., and he spent 22 years doggedly making art here, but it wasn't until he decamped to the greener pastures of Idaho in 1992 that his career took off.

The most notable evidence of Hernandez's change in fortune is a show currently at the Sprengel Museum in Hanover, Germany. The exhibition, accompanied by a catalogue with an essay by photographer Lewis Baltz, centers on Hernandez's "Landscapes for the Homeless," 50 color images of living sites created by L.A.'s homeless population.

Begun in 1988 and completed in 1991, "Landscapes" was rejected by most L.A. dealers, who found it "too depressing," says the 47-year-old artist, whose newest body of work, "In Another World," is on view through Nov. 25 at the Craig Krull Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica.

"Craig showed 14 images from the homeless series in 1991, but nobody paid much attention to it. Then it was exhibited in Rotterdam and got a lot of press in Europe--and now I'm about to see it published as a book," Hernandez says happily, referring to the catalogue.

Those who dismissed the artist's homeless work as depressing should find his current show easier to take. Shot in Idaho during the last two years, these rigorously formal, unabashedly lyrical landscapes are light-years away from his images of the homeless.

They're also a marked departure from the world Hernandez grew up in as the second of three sons of a Boyle Heights family.

"My parents weren't educated and there was no art in the house I grew up in," he recalls during a meeting at the gallery. "My father was a machinist, my mother worked in a meatpacking plant, and we lived in a rough neighborhood. I hung out with gangs and did lots of drugs, but when my friends started shooting hard drugs I got scared. I tried it and realized why people become addicted, because when you're on heroin nothing matters--it's a total escape. At that point I decided it was time to straighten up."

His relationship with the camera began in his last year of high school when a friend gave him a beginner's book on photography.

"I got a camera immediately because I had this fantasy of becoming a fashion photographer, making lots of money, traveling and meeting beautiful women," he recalls, laughing at the memory.

That plan never materialized, so after graduating from high school in 1965, Hernandez enrolled at East L.A. College, where he was introduced to the work of Edward Weston. "What struck me about his pictures was the odd things he photographed and the amazing clarity of his images."

At this point Hernandez decided to develop himself as a fine-art photographer, but that plan was waylaid the following year when he was drafted and sent to Vietnam.

"It was rough," he says of the 14 months he spent there. "I was a medic, so I saw people die right in front of me, and after I returned to the States I just tried to bury those memories. It wasn't until the early '80s that I began to realize how much that experience had affected me."

Upon leaving the service in 1969, Hernandez returned to L.A. and "tried to pick up where I left off."

"I'd saved some money in the service," he says, "so I rented an apartment in East L.A., pulled out my camera, stared at it for six months, then finally started taking pictures again. I was walking and riding the bus around L.A., taking pictures of people on the streets and at public use areas. Those early black-and-white images were essentially all the same picture; intense close-ups of people framed with a street receding behind them."

Having accumulated a year's worth of those pictures, Hernandez was told by a friend that Ed Parker, then curator of photography at the now-defunct Pasadena Art Museum, might like them.

"I didn't know the protocol of such things, so I just went there and asked to see him. He said, 'I like your pictures and want to put them in a survey of California photography,' which he did, then the following year he put me in a three-person show that got lots of attention. I still didn't have a gallery, though, and didn't sell my first photograph until four years later.

"I got by on unemployment and because I had a wonderful landlord who charged me really cheap rent--if it wasn't for [him] I would've had to work and wouldn't have been able to take pictures," says Hernandez, who's done everything from sanding cars to delivering furniture to pay his bills while developing his art.

In 1983 Hernandez's art underwent a shift when he began working in color for a series on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Three years later a second change occurred when he eliminated people from his images after he spent six weeks at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, as artist in residence.

"I found this place outside the city where people went for target practice and was fascinated by it," he says of his first body of landscape photography.

From there, he went on to create his studies of L.A. homeless encampments.

"Lots of these places are hard to get to, so making that work was like being on a reconnaissance mission," he says. "I had a pair of binoculars, and if there was a place I wanted to shoot, I'd check to make sure nobody was there, then go in and work fast. I was lucky no one ever caught me photographing their living place--there were lots of places I wanted to shoot but never did because people were always there."

Through this project, Hernandez has become something of an expert on the homeless.

"Some of these people have jobs. Some don't, of course, because they're mentally ill, but a surprising number of them are illegal immigrants who work or go to school," he says. "Illegal aliens make up about 80% of the homeless population of East L.A., then as you move toward the beach it becomes an increasingly mixed bag of people. Clusters of these dwellings have sprung up all over the city, but none last long because the city periodically levels them. Some people bootleg electricity into these places, and that's one of the reasons the city clears them out.

"I rarely saw evidence of any effort having been made to create an aesthetically pleasing environment. This is basic survival, and these people have their hands full just trying to create a spot that's warm and dry; most of these places are nothing more than some bedding, a cooking setup, plastic bags to keep things off the ground by hanging them in trees and some kind of overhead covering.

"Two things I encountered a lot that don't come across in the pictures are the smell and the rats--there are lots of dead rats in these places, and the stench is often overwhelming."

In 1992 Hernandez and his wife, writer Judith Freeman, left their apartment in the MacArthur Park area and settled outside of Challis, a small town in central Idaho.

"When I first got there I felt lost and said to myself, 'What am I going to photograph here?' " Hernandez recalls. "Then I was asked to submit a proposal for a public work for the entryway to a hospital and came up with the idea of doing huge photographs of details of water. The proposal wasn't accepted, but in preparing it I discovered a new way of working.

"I started looking at the recurring elements of the Idaho landscape--water, trees, the earth itself--and started trying to make pictures of them. It took me three years to come up with the 24 images in this series because I spend a lot of time looking and don't shoot that much. I can spend an entire day looking for a single picture."

Having completed his interpretation of Idaho's landscape, Hernandez is now photographing thrift stores. He sees this new work as a continuation of the homeless work in that thrift stores are patronized by the poor.

"I've seen people in thrift stores lay away garments that cost $10, and there are lots of people who really can't shop anywhere else," he says. "In addition to shooting things in the stores, I'm also shooting the spaces themselves, and they tend to vary widely from one region to the next. The stores in Idaho, for instance, are often in funky old houses, whereas in L.A. they tend to be in storefronts. I've shot thrift stores all over the West, but I can make this work anywhere because there are thrift stores everywhere in America.

"Like homeless encampments, they're multiplying at an alarming rate; the proliferation of thrift stores and homeless people is a reflection of the increasing disparity in this country between the rich and the poor."

* "Anthony Hernandez: In Another World," Craig Krull Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. Through Nov. 25. (310) 828-6410).

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