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

October 29, 1995|Kristine McKenna | 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.

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