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A Unique Eye for the Ordinary

Anthony Hernandez mines the detritus of daily life for his acclaimed photos.

October 08, 2000|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | 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.

"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.

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