When Anthony Hernandez began his career in photography more than 40 years ago, his favored subjects were the people and places found on the streets of his native Los Angeles, which he captured in arresting, black-and-white images.
“I still think of myself as a street photographer,” said Hernandez, whose work is the subject of “Discarded: Photographs by Anthony Hernandez,” a new exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. “But maybe now it’s the highway.”
That’s because the 30 large color photographs on display in this exhibition (one of the biggest measures about 5 feet by 9 feet) leave the city behind and take a look at the isolation and desolation of the desert areas east of Los Angeles. People are rarely seen in the photos. Instead, we see what they left behind.
“My wife and I have a place in Idaho,” Hernandez said. “I was always interested in these areas [we drive by] but, since we were traveling, I didn’t have time to photograph it.”
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Beginning in 2012, however, Hernandez did start taking the time to pull off the road and snap some shots. What he found were reminders that the area had been hit hard by an economic downturn that had begun in 2008.
“The backdrop is very rich, but you have to find it,” he said. “I would go back again and again, looking for something that would reveal that certain landscape in a better way — that angle, that light, that moment.”
Hernandez, who studied at East Los Angeles College and served as a U.S. Army medic during the Vietnam War, has built an international reputation since he took up photography in earnest in the early 1970s. His works can be found in the collections of art institutions from Los Angeles’ J. Paul Getty Museum to New York’s Guggenheim Museum.
His work will be featured in a major retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in September.
There’s a certain quality of the light or the composition that is satisfying and, in a way, appealing even if the subject is not appealing
John Rohrbach, senior curator of photographs at the Carter
The images in the Carter exhibition feature desolate landscapes littered with the detritus of dreams gone bad: abandoned homes worn by weather and neglect, plots laid out for a subdivision that never happened, utility poles that probably never supported wires, a homeless man living in a dilapidated bus, a framed photograph of teen siblings, inexplicably left behind in a decaying domicile.
Despite the seemingly depressing nature of the subject matter, it is hard to look away from these forgotten places that captured Hernandez’s attention.
“There’s a certain beauty I can’t understand. There’s a certain quality of the light or the composition that is satisfying and, in a way, appealing even if the subject is not appealing,” said John Rohrbach, senior curator of photographs at the Carter, who worked with Hernandez for more than three years to develop this exhibition. “It makes me curious about what his next project is going to be.”
Curiosity plays a major role in the creation and enjoyment of Hernandez’s work. Viewers want know about the people who might have lived, or hoped to live, in the gutted-out homes standing alone in the desert. Hernandez obviously has that same curiosity when he is drawn to take a certain shot, and he also hopes to be taken off guard by what he sees in his viewfinder.
The subjects are quite ordinary. But I don’t think the pictures are ordinary. I think they are compelling and strong
“Part of the challenge is to be surprised, he said. “That’s what you are looking for. The subjects are quite ordinary. But I don’t think the pictures are ordinary. I think they are compelling and strong.”
Rohrbach said the Carter plans to purchase at least one of the photographs in the exhibition, and that Hernandez will sweeten that deal. “He is gifting some things out of the show. He is being very generous,” Rohrbach said.
Catalogs of the exhibition will be available at the museum by April 7, Rohrbach said, when Hernandez will do a signing.
This collection of Hernandez’s photographs may also be significant as representing the end of an era for the photographer. In this digital age, he still shoots on film. But that may change, he said.
“I don’t own a digital camera. But I probably will be getting one very soon, and it might be a good moment to start a new project,” said Hernandez, whose photographs are printed digitally.
Hernandez has an incredible eye for composing images that draw viewers in. One of the artists who comes to mind when looking at the photographer’s work is Edward Hopper, an American painter whose career was over before Hernandez’s began, and who favored the houses, workplaces and at least one lonely coffee shop of his native New England — the exact opposite of Hernandez’s stark Southern California landscapes.
Hernandez’s photos have the same sense of isolation and loneliness that characterized so many of Edward Hopper’s works.
But the works of both artists share a near obsession with capturing exactly the right light, whether it is an East Coast sunrise or a West Coast sunset. And Hernandez’s photos have the same sense of isolation and loneliness that characterized so many of Hopper’s works. When looking into their frames, one can’t help but wonder who the people are or what the places are about.
And, different though they are, both artists give us an insightful glimpse of the America of their times. That is a lot to take away from an exhibition that Hernandez describes as focusing primarily on “things that show up in the desert that shouldn’t have been there.”
Discarded: Photographs by Anthony Hernandez
- Through Aug. 7
- Amon Carter Museum of American Art
- 817-738-1933; www.cartermuseum.org