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A Unique Eye for the Ordinary

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

What does it take to be an overnight sensation? In the case of Los Angeles photographer Anthony Hernandez, more than 30 years of work. He has taken thousands of pictures, participated in dozens of exhibitions and garnered a fair amount of critical praise since the late 1960s, when he first picked up the family box camera and took surprisingly prophetic photos of automobile engine parts strewn around a vacant lot in East Los Angeles. But suddenly, his work seems to be everywhere.

Still basking in the glow of a prestigious Rome Prize fellowship that took him to the American Academy in Rome in 1998-99, he has just returned from another trip to Italy for a show of his work at the VEGA Parco Scientifico Tecnologico, a huge hall in Marghera, near Venice. And now he is preparing his first exhibition at the bicoastal gallery Grant Selwyn Fine Art. A selection of his “Pictures for Rome,” 40-by-40-inch color images of deserted buildings on the periphery of that city, will open at the gallery’s New York space Thursday and in Beverly Hills on Saturday.

Some of his “Landscapes for the Homeless,” depicting makeshift encampments in Los Angeles, will appear in “Made in California: Art, Image and Identity, 1900-2000,” opening Oct. 22 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. His suite of works portraying man-made fishing areas will be in “Flight Patterns: Picturing the Pacific Rim,” opening Oct. 29 at the Museum of Contemporary Art. His work is also in “Beyond Boundaries: Contemporary Photography in California,” a show that has already been seen at Cal State Long Beach and opens Nov. 11 at the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum.

It might appear that the 53-year-old artist has finally arrived in the art world’s upper echelon. But pleased as he is with the recognition, Hernandez is looking ahead to next year’s shows at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid and Galerie Polaris in Paris, as well as a residency at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and San Francisco.

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“I feel like this is just a beginning,” he says.

That may be, but he has come a long way from Aliso Village, the East Los Angeles public housing project where he was born in 1947, and from Boyle Heights, where he grew up. Describing himself as a kid who frequently got into trouble and knew nothing of art, he tracks his career to a wayward photography textbook. When he was a senior at Roosevelt High School, a friend with a criminal record who had enrolled at East Los Angeles College to avoid going to jail found the book in the college restroom, took it home and passed it on to Hernandez.

“We had never talked about photography, but somehow he thought I would do something with it,” Hernandez said. “I had no idea what I was going to do after high school--no plans, nothing, absolutely zero--so I thought, well maybe I’ll go to East L.A. [College] and take photography. I thought I would make a lot of money and travel and meet beautiful women, the whole cliche.”

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Essentially self-taught, he took a few basic courses in photography in 1966-67 and says he found his “first hero,” Edward Weston, while perusing photography books at the college library. “I had no idea that photography could be fine art. It was just something that found me,” he says. “But I got very excited about the idea of taking pictures. I just fell in love with art.”

He had to take time out in 1967-69, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army and was sent to Vietnam. But he was already smitten with the work of Weston, Walker Evans, Eugene Atget and Paul Strand, and he found his subject matter upon his return to Los Angeles. Since then, Hernandez has developed “a way of looking at stuff that’s so ordinary, most people don’t think there’s enough to make a picture,” he says. “The stuff is actually not that interesting. But the picture of it is. That’s the point for me.”

Although his first pictures--of castoff machinery in a vacant lot by an auto repair shop that he passed every day--foreshadowed much of his recent work, he spent about 14 years taking black-and-white street shots of ordinary people. In the early 1980s, his pictures of people waiting for buses all over town caught the eye of a magazine art director who didn’t publish the images but offered Hernandez some commercial work.

It looked like a way to alleviate his perpetual financial struggle, so Hernandez thought he would try shooting in color for commercial jobs while continuing his own art in black and white. For awhile, color didn’t seem to work for him. When he finally got a picture he liked in Beverly Hills, he forgot about the proposed commercial work and started a series of color street shots on Rodeo Drive.

“Those were my first pictures in color and the last of people,” he says.

In 1986, while patching together a living from sales of his photographs, grants and odd jobs, he became an artist in residence at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. “I thought I would photograph on the Strip, but I ended up photographing outside the city, in places where people go for target practice,” he says. The pictures, “Shooting Sites,” show the aftermath of target practice, not the folks who fire the guns. “I was interested in what’s left after that kind of shooting, close-ups of the debris,” Hernandez says.

The residency lasted only six weeks, but he continued the series, first returning to Las Vegas and later photographing shooting ranges in the Angeles National Forest. “People are supposed to use official paper targets, but they take old television sets, bowling balls and dolls to see what they look like when they are exploded with high-caliber weapons,” he says.

Then came “Landscapes for the Homeless,” a series that has taken Hernandez to many Los Angeles hideaways where homeless people stash their meager possessions in the weeds and sleep on the ground. Venturing into these areas when the occupants are away, he has shot all sorts of abysmal empty nests, furnished with rumpled blankets, broken furniture and cardboard boxes, and strewn with empty food containers and cigarette butts. “It’s the evidence of homelessness,” he says.

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The pictures were first shown in 1993, at the Turner/Krull Gallery in West Hollywood, but they attracted much more attention later in Europe. A book published in conjunction with a 1995 exhibition at the Sprengel Museum in Hanover, Germany, led to several other shows and a second volume, “Landscapes for the Homeless II.” And although Hernandez has gone on to other subjects, his pictures of homeless people’s outdoor environments still generate a lot of interest.

“People say they like those pictures because they have many layers of meaning,” he says. “They can come back and read them in a different way, and I like that. I want to make pictures that are very formal but rich enough for people to look at again and again.” While many artists have photographed homeless people, Hernandez seems to have struck a chord with his audience by exploring an aspect of the subject that had been overlooked.

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After he had received a warm reception to his work in Europe, his wife, novelist Judith Freeman, encouraged him to apply for the Rome Prize fellowship. In his application, he said he wanted to photograph ordinary things, not ruins, views or monuments, and sent examples of his “Waiting in Line” pictures, which focus on mundane details of buildings that one might stare at while waiting at Los Angeles County Department of Social Service offices.

When he and Freeman arrived in Rome and Hernandez began looking for subject matter, he discovered new ruins on the edge of town--modern, unfinished buildings that had been abandoned and taken over by immigrants. Using the square format that he adopted in “Landscapes for the Homeless,” he created a Roman version of the Los Angeles series, except that they are his first indoor pictures.

Not the last, however.

During the past months in Los Angeles, he has photographed indoors at Aliso Village, just before it was leveled to make way for new low-income housing, and in other empty downtown buildings. Shooting at Aliso Village was particularly poignant, he says, because it brought back childhood memories, and he focused on things left behind by former residents, including toys and photographs of children that were tacked to a wall.

He also has joined a team of artists commissioned to photograph in and around the construction site of Disney Hall, for an exhibition when the building is finished. At the moment, Hernandez is most interested in old buildings around the site. “In a lot of these big buildings, there isn’t much there,” he says. “But to make a picture with very little is fascinating.”

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He and Freeman bought a small house in a rural area of Idaho several years ago, but they still maintain an apartment in Los Angeles and spend much of their time here. Cities are hard places to work, Hernandez says, but Los Angeles is a rich source of material, and traveling has given him a productive, fresh take on the city.

“The nice thing is being able to leave--and come back,” he says. “It’s hard to get inspired about where you live if you are just stuck in one place. Going to Rome and traveling back and forth from Idaho to Los Angeles has generated a body of work that I probably wouldn’t have made if I hadn’t left. I even see my old neighborhood in a new way. Working at Aliso Village and doing the pictures for Disney Hall is coming back to ground zero for me; it’s all about where I was born and who I am.”

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“Pictures for Rome,” Grant Selwyn Fine Art, 341 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills. Saturday to Nov. 11; Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Free. Phone: (310) 777-2400.


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