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Behind the Exhibit: Anthony Hernandez

A new photography exhibit excavates L.A.’s underclass

To the average spectator, the art world often comes off as shamelessly moneyed and hierarchical. Which is why when the creative class attempts to document the lives of the underclass, the results are by and large disastrous. But photographer Anthony Hernandez, who spent years excavating the lives of L.A.’s low-income and homeless populations, is the rare exception.

Those photos make up two landmark series: Landscapes for the Homeless, which catalogs the makeshift encampments that line Los Angeles’s freeways and the L.A. River, and Public Transit, which shows L.A. residents taking the bus. Both sets are the subject of Hernandez’s new solo exhibit at Yancey Richardson gallery, which marks their first New York showing.

Besides their strange beauty, says Richardson, the photos also capture a lifestyle and ingenuity not usually represented in Angeleno culture. “In the images you see bags of food that are suspended from a tree because this guy, whoever lived there, doesn’t want rodents in his food,” she says. “Or that image of the yellow blanket; it’s so beautiful. It’s strung up for privacy to create a space. He’s looking at the parts of LA that people don’t typically celebrate.”

Hernandez, a Vietnam veteran and lifelong Los Angeles resident, was somewhat off the grid himself, at least when it comes to the New York art world – until a retrospective at SFMOMA brought him nationwide acclaim. “He’s a great guy and a really smart photographer but he’s not like a big self-promoter,” says Richardson. “So the SFMOMA show helped tremendously.”

While Hernandez may be a relatively new commodity, New York audiences will recognize the themes in his work. While they may seem almost pastoral on the surface, critics have likened Hernandez’s photos to a noir, post-apocalyptic urban landscape. According to a press release, the photos once prompted fellow photographer and critic Lewis Baltz to declare, “L.A.’s destiny is to become Blade Runner.” In response, Hernandez, invoking his two years as a Vietnam War medic, tells Baltz that dystopia is already a reality: “The people on the ground are the forgotten, and the ground is a human wasteland,” he says. “The hardest pictures I ever made were the homeless pictures. I wasn’t in a war zone but it was as if I were.”