2016-10-14 19:56:13
Photographs of Desperate Shadows Cast by the California Sun

Concealed by bedraggled vegetation alongside a freeway, the path would beckon to Anthony Hernandez; and like an urban archaeologist, he’d venture forth to find, in a clearing beneath a sheltering overpass, the traces of an unknown civilization: hundreds of cigarette butts, food in a plastic bag suspended from a tree, a chair constructed from two slabs of plasterboard.

The homeless people who slept there would be out scavenging. And in their absence, Mr. Hernandez would set up his camera and tripod, and record the scene in sharply detailed color images that are both forensic and poetic.

Those photographs, from a series he calls “Landscapes for the Homeless,” make up a small section of a revelatory exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that runs through Jan. 1. It is the first career retrospective for Mr. Hernandez, 69, who for half a century has been compiling a singular record of his hometown. Los Angeles appears on countless rolls of photographic film, but the terrain Mr. Hernandez travels is largely unexplored.

“I grew up taking pictures in downtown L.A., because this was my neighborhood, it was someplace I know, the poor places of L.A. — Compton, South Central, Watts,” Mr. Hernandez, a modest, engaging man, said in San Francisco. No one questioned him. “It helps to have brown skin,” he said.

The son of Mexican immigrants, Mr. Hernandez grew up in a working-class community north of downtown and was drawn to the rough streets of Los Angeles: to thrift stores and auto repair shops, to weathered faces and downcast eyes, to office workers on lunch breaks in unwelcoming plazas and to worn-out folks in wrinkled clothes who sunbathe on the Long Beach sand within view of the oil derricks.

“People have been so taken by the sunshine noir Hollywood version of Los Angeles that that’s become the narrative — fast cars and beautiful blondes in bikinis,” said Erin O’Toole, the associate curator of photography at the museum, known as SFMOMA, who organized the show. “The Los Angeles of the poor, the working class and people of color is what Tony knows.”

The Hernandez retrospective is the first solo exhibition installed in the Pritzker Center of Photography, a vast expanse in the museum’s annex, which opened this year.

Covering 15,000 square feet, the new galleries almost triple the display space dedicated to photography and make a strong case that SFMOMA has supplanted New York’s Museum of Modern Art as the pre-eminent American museum showcase for the 175-year-old discipline of photography.

Since March, the MoMA photography galleries have been closed for renovation, and although there has been no official announcement, the curators said last April at a photography department forum for curators and writers that the museum will be moving away from dedicated photography rooms. Instead, photography increasingly will be integrated with painting, sculpture and other media.

In keeping with that philosophy, on the lineup (other than a show commemorating a gift) is a retrospective next spring of Louise Lawler, a Conceptual artist who photographs installations of other artists’ work but is not in any traditional sense a photographer.

Breathing the same arch air, the last show of recent photography at MoMA was a triennial that was dominated by solipsistic photographers who don’t venture far from their bedrooms, their bookcases or the computers on their desks.

An exhibition next fall, not yet publicly announced, might seem more aligned with MoMA tradition: the color photographer Stephen Shore. But Mr. Shore staged his MoMA debut 40 years ago, and now makes larger prints that can hold their own on a museum wall (and in an auction house).

MoMA seems to have renounced the role it played in the 1960s and ’70s, under its powerful photography director, John Szarkowski. When led by Mr. Szarkowski, MoMA presented scholarly shows on the historical giants of photography (Atget, Evans, Lange, Lartigue) and introduced major new talents (Arbus, Winogrand, Friedlander, Eggleston).

“John would take chances,” said Sandra Phillips, the head of the SFMOMA photography department until her retirement this year, and an early supporter of Mr. Hernandez’s work. “You can’t go by the market all the time. You have to make a claim that something is important.”

Although never represented by a major American gallery, Mr. Hernandez — who has lived for 45 years in a small apartment near downtown Los Angeles — has long been championed by the two leading photographers of the despoiling of the American West: Lewis Baltz, who died in 2014, and Robert Adams. “I am so glad that his work is finally getting the attention it deserves,” Mr. Adams said. “It’s as tough as nails, but I think it comes out of a sensitivity.”

Although Mr. Hernandez expresses great admiration for both Mr. Baltz and Mr. Adams, he approaches the subject of environmental degradation from a different perspective. Unlike Mr. Baltz, who witnessed the development that destroyed the orange groves of his native Orange County, or Mr. Adams, who watched tract housing ravage the mountainous Colorado landscape to which he moved as a teenager, Mr. Hernandez as a boy could not mistake his Los Angeles for Eden.

Instead of focusing on the effect of development on the natural world, he portrays the human toll.

He discovered photography as a teenager. Sidetracked by a tour of duty in Vietnam, he visited New York a year after his return, in 1970, and showed his portfolio to Mr. Szarkowski, who bought two pictures and provided introductions to Arbus and Winogrand. Mr. Hernandez would be particularly influenced by the street photography of Winogrand, and in the early ’70s, he took many pictures that hold their own against the earlier photographer’s work.

Unlike Winogrand, who was attracted to the antic energy of urban life and accentuated it with off-kilter framing, Mr. Hernandez embraced the formal full-frontal style that Mr. Baltz and Mr. Adams applied to landscapes. That’s more challenging to achieve when catching life on the fly.

“It’s not waiting for something,” he explained. “It’s moving through that urban space. You get better at it over time.” Usually, the subjects never noticed him. “I love the idea that I’m not there,” he said. “But I am there.”

His early black-and-white work portrays an intimate knowledge of his hometown: men repairing broken-down cars; people who can’t afford a car and wait for buses; and families who go fishing for recreation (and food) in an artificial lake. (Some of those anglers are half underwater.)

Encouraged by a local magazine editor, Mr. Hernandez veered sharply into a new direction in 1984, taking color transparencies of shoppers on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. In this first (and only) series on the affluent, he retained his unsentimental sympathy, especially for the women, who typically look like flinching captives on the arm of a man.

After this series, he stopped depicting people, and he worked only in color. The decision to forsake photographing people grew out of his experiences as an artist in residence at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Photographing sites used as a shooting range in a nearby national forest, and subsequently at similar settings in Los Angeles, he chronicled the eerily violent residues of target practice.

And on a day in Las Vegas that was too windy to photograph, he took a walk and discovered a homeless encampment at the end of a path by the freeway. “Nobody is photographing the evidence of homelessness,” he said, explaining why he continued seeking out these gathering spots when he returned to Los Angeles. “The people, yes, but not the places.” The photographs he had seen of homeless people, usually in black and white, left him unmoved. He felt his pictures were more affecting. “It puts you in his place,” he said. “I’m right here. I’m looking at what he’s looking at.”

Entering these encampments is risky, because the people hiding out there are leery and sometimes violent or psychotic. Mr. Hernandez tries to be sure no one is present before he enters. “You throw a rock down a dirt path,” he said. “If someone is down there, they’ll come out and look. For me, it was, Who else is going to be taking these pictures? I had to take the chance.”

Sometimes he employs a telephoto lens and a lengthy exposure. The photographs frequently become formal and abstract, evoking the light boxes of James Turrell and Robert Irwin, the cardboard sculptures of Robert Rauschenberg, or the wire pieces of Richard Tuttle.

Mr. Hernandez has also devoted sequences to buildings that are being demolished and to structures abandoned by their builders before completion. As a fellow of the American Academy in Rome in 1999, he neglected the classical ruins and explored shuttered factories and unfinished apartment complexes; his compositional style can make a cinder-block squat seem as monumental as a marble mausoleum.

He observes things that ordinary eyes pass over. With his wife, Judith Freeman, a writer, he spends summers in rural Idaho. Driving there and back, they stop at thrift shops. While Ms. Freeman distracts the proprietor with questions, Mr. Hernandez photographs the castoffs that are being offered for sale.

Boasting an unsurpassed collection of California photography, the San Francisco Museum makes a fitting space for the show. “When the museum began in the ’30s, the local artists were the photographers,” Ms. Phillips said. “Photography has been the region’s main artistic contribution.”

Since the days of the ’49ers, California photographers have portrayed the mutual damage inflicted by the forbidding landscape and the successive waves of rapacious fortune-hunters. Mr. Hernandez’s pictures add a poignant twist to the tale.