“I went down there and saw all these little paintings of landscapes, houses, little beautiful scenes. The light on that picture is from reflections of cars going underneath the freeway. The whole roll was faint, faint, faint. And then there was the clown. There are so many places like this, it goes on forever.”
On a scorching summer morning in Los Angeles, cruising west on Jefferson Boulevard past the 99-cent stores, lavanderias, auto body shops and makeshift places of prayer, I arrive at the studio of the artist Anthony Hernandez. It’s only fitting, since these are the kinds of places the artist has been photographing, in his native city, for several decades.
Since the late 1960’s Hernandez has explored the vernacular urban landscape and the medium of photography itself with a tough, sober eye. His travelling retrospective, most recently at SFMOMA (which I wrote about here Los Angeles Plays Itself: Anthony Hernandez at SFMOMA) will be opening at the Milwaukee Art Museum on September 15th. Concurrently, his Landscapes For The Homeless and Public Transit Areas will be on view at Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York from September 15 – October 21, 2017. His latest book Forever, recently published by MACK is his most recent engagement with the fragments of the cityscape left behind as new development presses forward.
As I entered his studio, a former nightclub turned tailor shop turned barbershop, there are large prints hanging on the walls. At first glance they appear abstract, with some kind of black surface punctured by small holes obscuring the picture plane. But upon looking closely one can make out the outlines and shapes of people, colors and signage that indicate its Los Angeles. These are new pictures Hernandez is making through bus stop shelters throughout the city. After introducing myself and taking in the prints on the wall he tells me to stand in the far corner of the room, and proceeds to pick up one large print after the next to show me. As I walk toward the image to get a better look, he insists that I step back into the far corner so as to understand the optical changes that occur as various parts of the picture come into focus at different distances. “I’m going to call this work Against LA,” he says enthusiastically.
Peter Baker: Against LA? Ha. I think of your larger body of work as an ongoing dialogue with Los Angeles, but in a way that undermines or goes against the mythology of “LA.”
AH: I like that it’s all here in Los Angeles, its just ordinary, a bus stop, its just the ordinary thing that’s out there. Places people go to work, wait for the bus or find a place to sleep. I like that in one way they are hard to read and become ambiguous, but once you really look at them they’re just ordinary places, the backdrop of the city, but not so much the LA of the movies or the glamour side. My pictures are real in the sense that I walk the streets and over a long period of time got the feel of the city in different kinds of pictures, and I’m still as excited as ever about working in the city I was born in. It helps to leave for periods of time in the summer. We spend some summer months in Idaho and then I come back to LA with fresh eyes, so to speak. This has been a very important part of my process, it feels like I am starting all over again every time I come back. LA is so rich I could never feel like I’ve exhausted photographing the city.
PB: Is that where the title Forever comes from?
AH: I took it from Lewis’ title Forever Homeless (from the conversation between Hernandez and Lewis Baltz in Landscapes For The Homeless) and just decided to make it Forever.
PB: That’s interesting because similarly to Landscapes For The Homeless, your new book Forever seems to say something about people without actually showing people. Is Forever an elaboration on Landscapes For The Homeless?
AH: My wife kept saying “oh you’re bringing people back into your pictures.” I hadn’t made any pictures with people for a while, but they start to appear abstractly in these bus stop pictures. I’m looking through the screen and hear a voice talking to me. Someone comes around, I give him a dollar and he’s on his way. When I get the film back I realize he stopped right on the other side of the screen. I couldn’t have placed him any better, it was perfect. In Forever you see these pictures of a trophy, a bed, little signs of life. The clown. I photographed the painting of that clown near where I was born. It was under a bridge where all these homeless people were living before they were eventually kicked out. The city put up this really strong metal fence so you couldn’t get underneath the bridge anymore. I hadn’t been down there in a long time, and I noticed someone had bent the fence down so you could get through. I went down there and saw all these little paintings of landscapes, houses, little beautiful scenes. The light on that picture is from reflections of cars going underneath the freeway. The whole roll was faint, faint, faint. And then there was the clown. There are so many places like this, it goes on forever. So I took Lewis’ title. And so many places have changed. LA is forever altering.
PB: You live around Mac Arthur Park right? Some people predict that area to become gentrified with all the development seeping out from downtown. Do you notice any changes there?
AH: Mac Arthur Park hasn’t changed. Further north closer to Sunset, yes, all these places are changing, but where we are, that’s not changing. I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t had cheap rent all these years. I’ve lived in my apartment near Mac Arthur Park for 47 years. Years ago I had the bedroom converted into a darkroom and my landlord let me put a hole through the floor and I had a stainless steel sink. In those days I did all kinds of shitty jobs. The best times were when I had three NEA grants. I worked part time. The longest job I had was working for the Department of Water and Power in the mailroom. I’d work really early in the morning, starting at 6:00 am and I’d be done by noon and could photograph. I had that job for six years or so. When I met my wife in ’86, she’s a writer and sold her first two books, and for us it seemed like a lot of money so we could have some options, but it was because of our little apartment with cheap rent that I was able to quit and focus on my work. Now they are selling the building and forcing us to leave. But getting those NEA grants was the best thing.
PB: There is a long history of republicans trying to eliminate NEA grants and I just read about how Trump’s recent proposal to do this was rejected. Can you tell me a little bit about your family’s history in Los Angeles? The identity of the city is inextricably bound to immigrants from Latin America and I always think of it as one of the great examples of immigrants contributing to the culture and economics of a city in an indispensable way, despite the indignant words and policies from our current President.
AH: Trump is a nightmare for artists and everyone else. I can’t stand to hear him or see his face. Those NEA grants helped me in very difficult times. There were very hard times when it was either food or film. My parents were born in Mexico and came to Colorado when they were kids. They met there and when they got married they moved to Los Angeles with my father’s parents and other family members. My mother’s side of the family stayed in Colorado, but later my mother’s brother came to LA.
“For me walking is the only way you can really discover a place as vast as Los Angeles. It’s interesting that in all the years walking I never bumped into any other photographers except for Garry Winogrand years ago. I used to see Garry everywhere.”
PB: They say nobody walks in Los Angeles, but of course it isn’t true. Working people walk, photographers walk. You have to walk to find the places you photograph. What does it mean to walk in Los Angeles?
AH: I was once asked why or how I became an artist, because I didn’t really go to school or have any interest in art growing up. The only thing I could relate to growing up, that made any connection with me becoming an artist was that when I was a kid, instead of taking the streetcar home or to school I would rather walk. These walks became a way of seeing and experiencing the spaces around me. I remember that I loved walking through the alleys and would change the route I’d take home or to school just to see something new. When I started taking street pictures in downtown LA I either walked downtown and then if I was tired take the bus back to my apartment, or I’d take the bus down and walk back after photographing. When I stopped taking the street pictures downtown I started the Automotive Landscapes, still using my 35mm and I’d walk all over LA looking for these different kinds of landscapes. Even when I switched to a 5×7 camera for that series I would still walk and take the bus back. Walking in LA is hard. Not like New York. I know it also helps having brown skin walking in places like Watts, South Central. I have made a lot of good work in LA and it’s all because I loved walking. For me walking is the only way you can really discover a place as vast as Los Angeles. It’s interesting that in all the years walking I never bumped into any other photographers except for Garry Winogrand years ago. I used to see Garry everywhere.
PB: What was your relationship with Winogrand like?
AH: He was the only person I’d bump into, whether it was on Rodeo, downtown, Venice Beach, I always bumped into Garry. While I was working on Rodeo we’d bump into each other and always have a coffee after we were done photographing. Garry would be at the Market on Fairfax early in the morning drinking coffee and doing his crossword puzzle. Once he finished the crossword he’d head out to photograph. Garry was great. He was very generous. The last time I saw him was on Rodeo and I hadn’t seen him in a while. He had been in New York and I said, “How’s it going Garry?” and he said, “Ah things are off.” He didn’t clarify what he meant, whether it was physically or mentally, he just knew things were off. Shortly after that I found out he had cancer and a couple of months later he died. Crazy. It was so sad.
PB: A few weeks ago in New York I saw Robert Frank sitting outside his place on Bleecker Street with his wife and some friends. I know they are very protective of him, so I briefly said hello and thanked him for all his beautiful work and kept moving. Do you remember when you first saw The Americans? Was he an influence?
AH: I would have loved to have been with you and said hello to Robert Frank! I first saw The Americans in 1969. He was the great poet of the street, and had his own way of moving through any space. He came to show his films in 1971 or ’73 at the old Pasadena Museum. I remember he said he didn’t want to make pictures on the street because he didn’t want to feel alone anymore, and making films allowed him to work with other people. I asked him if he still felt alone and he said he did. But Weston was the first photographer that made me want to be an artist. He was a visionary. Frank was second and then Evans and everyone who came after. I started looking at painting as well because a girlfriend at the time was an artist and was friends with painters. I never went to art school. I was always an outsider. So this was all the beginning for me as art goes.
PB: Do you imagine the work becoming a book while you’re making it or is that something that comes later on?
AH: I never thought about books initially. Lewis [Baltz] always thought about books. He self published his first books and would make these portfolios of every body of work, some of which are worth a lot of money now, like the Tract Houses. It worked for him. I met him and Hank [Henry Wessel] in 1973, and Lewis and I became good friends. But now I’ve been able to have some of my work published and I think more about books and it’s exciting. The cover design of Forever is actually an image of the bus stop screen. So it sort of points to the next thing, the next body of work. When I was doing the SFMOMA show I realized I hadn’t made a picture in a year. I was busy getting all the work together and that was good, but I had never done that. A friend of mine said, “Your future is your next picture.” It’s always been true. Like I said, it’s hard for me to think I’ve exhausted LA, so I’m just excited to get back to work.
PB: Lastly, your wife Judith Freeman wrote a very poetic essay in Forever that very much has the fragmented, descriptive style of your pictures. Was it special to collaborate with her?
AH: I am happy with Forever and my wife’s text. For me it hits the right tone to work with the images. It’s a book that people have to work to get it, its not easy. Erin O’Toole, the SFMOMA curator wrote that my work was “A Very Hard Look,” and I think that’s true. That unknown thing, that blank page, so to speak is the thing that has kept me going. The other thing that helps is that when I am working with different cameras and lenses, the equipment somehow disappears and there is a feeling of just seeing and not being aware of the camera in your hand. That is something very pure and I guess I wanted to keep having that over and over again. I am looking forward to getting back to work and finishing Against LA, by next spring.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Peter Baker. Images @ Anthony Hernandez.)