Where the Homeless Sleep
Anthony Hernandez takes a hard look at the neglected landscapes of Los Angeles.
By Stephen Hilger
East Los Angeles–born Anthony Hernandez has long recognized the underprivileged people and disregarded spaces of his hometown in his photographs. The artist’s photobooks published between 1995 and 2017 provide an anthology of overlooked, ordinary, and deprived public life in his native city. While Hernandez’s intention of giving visibility to this segment of society has been consistent, his photographic style has undergone important shifts during his ﬁfty-plus-years calling. Despite these formal changes, however, Hernandez has persistently aimed to picture life in Los Angeles from an atypical perspective. Allan Sekula likened his imagery to “a city grid opening up to the east, and thus a reversal of the usual understandings of Los Angeles topography, which always approach downtown from the west, and rarely take in the view from the other side of the river.”
In Hernandez’s most recent title, Forever (MACK, 2017), he returns to this familiar territory, examining the most neglected landscapes throughout points east and south of downtown LA. The ﬁfty-ﬁve closely cropped color photographs in the book are different from the sweeping, cinematic images of Los Angeles one may be accustomed to seeing. Instead of buying into the glamorous projection exported through motion pictures and via self-aggrandizing digital screens, Hernandez takes what he has described as a “very hard look” at the urban landscape, and at the “hard spaces” its citizens occupy. With Forever, Hernandez returns to a longtime subject, photographing the spaces inhabited by the homeless in Los Angeles and beyond. The ﬁrst photograph in the book reveals a worn-out broom leaning against a white-washed yet stained wall, and soiled sheets of cardboard jutting out past the foreground. As in William Henry Fox Talbot’s seminal picture of the broom at Lacock Abbey, the photograph attests to everyday life. A crucial difference is that Hernandez’s broom positioned against a dead-end concrete wall appears more confrontational as opposed to Talbot’s, positioned by an open door.
Made two decades earlier, Hernandez’s ﬁrst monograph, Landscapes for the Homeless (Sprengel Museum, 1995), presents the viewer with the visual evidence of homeless encampments between or underneath the sprawling freeways of Los Angeles. Invisible to the multitudes traveling through the city in motorized vehicles, these sites are made conspicuous in Hernandez’s saturated color photographs of the denizens’ bedding, clothing, cooking utensils, and other possessions within the brushy foliage. Landscapes for the Homeless depicts the social condition of homelessness without human subjects. It is the absence of the dispossessed in these “landscapes” that charges the scenes. Borrowing from Walter Benjamin, the “photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political signiﬁcance. . . . They stir the viewer; he feels challenged by them in a new way.” The lack of human presence marks the perhaps most signiﬁcant transformation of the artist’s working process. While Hernandez’s earliest views from the street emphasized city dwellers adrift in the city by foot, his “landscapes for the homeless” are as hauntingly absent of people as the city views by Eugène Atget. This signature emptiness has remained in every subsequent series that Hernandez completed since that landmark work.
When Hernandez started out as a photographer in the sixties, he roamed streets, beaches, and other public spaces to compose street photography–style portraits of the city’s residents. By the late seventies, Hernandez began to photograph people waiting for the bus throughout Los Angeles with a 5-by-7-inch view camera; in the process, he created a new style of street photography more attuned to the urban landscape. These photographs remained unpublished for thirty years, until they appeared in the monumental book Waiting, Sitting, Fishing, and Some Automobiles: Los Angeles (Loosestrife Editions, 2007). The coveted volume, published by John Gossage’s imprint, features forty-two exceptional duotone, gatefold reproductions of Hernandez’s black-and-white photographs from the late seventies and early eighties. Waiting, Sitting, Fishing, and Some Automobiles includes four distinct yet related photographic series that portray the systematic use of public space in Los Angeles. The large-format views open up the pictorial space and render details not possible with a smaller negative. In the book’s ﬁrst sequence, “Public Transit Areas,” the viewer can glean small details like chewing gum littered on the sidewalk by waiting riders and motor oil–speckled roadways. Pedestrians recede from the foreground to the middle ground, transforming his images of people waiting into urban landscapes. The following two series in the book also depict Angelenos waiting: in “Public Use Areas” ofﬁce workers take their breaks in overbuilt corporate plazas, while in “Public Fishing Areas,” people pass time at lakes and watering holes in the city’s furthest environs. In the ﬁnal selection, “Automotive Landscapes,” Hernandez pictures auto-repair shops, used-car lots, and junkyards—the locations where the deﬁning machinery of daily life in Los Angeles is maintained.
During the early nineties, on a walk through the city after his own car broke down, Hernandez noticed a crowd waiting in line at a social-services ofﬁce. Although he had passed the scene often in his own vehicle, he experienced things differently by foot, where he could observe architectural details from the vantage of the people waiting in line at the welfare ofﬁce. Hernandez photographed the tile façade that wraps around the building, recording what the people saw as they moved through the line. A detail view of the tile grid enfolds the book Waiting for Los Angeles (Nazraeli Press, 2002). The image is highly formal—a straight-on depiction of square colored tiles—yet the signiﬁcant shift in perspective places the observer within the social space of the subject, simultaneously representing both an abstract and real view.
As in Waiting for Los Angeles, Hernandez assumes the perspective of the subject—the vantage point of the homeless—in Forever. While the “landscapes for the homeless” made by Hernandez two decades earlier created views of an outsider looking in, Hernandez’s new photographs look out from the sites where the homeless sleep. The artist perceived what the inhabitants see as he positioned his camera on the ground where they sleep, cook, and maintain their makeshift shelters. An essay by Hernandez’s wife, Judith Freeman, written in dialogue with him, gives context to the photographs by transporting the reader along the photographer’s itineraries through the city. The conversational format is evocative of the dialogue between Lewis Baltz and Hernandez in Landscapes for the Homeless, titled “Forever Homeless,” which served as inspiration for the title of the new book. In the original text, Hernandez claimed, “the homeless stand for the failure to face the future. Maybe forever homeless is the future.” In 1995, the year when Landscapes for the Homeless was published, the global homeless population was estimated to be 55 million people. Twenty years later, it had nearly doubled to 100 million. To document the homeless sites in Forever, Hernandez didn’t need to discover hidden enclaves of the dispossessed; so many of these campsites now appear in plain sight, in the harsh, bright light of the midday sun. As the photographer learned through ﬁrsthand observation, “the most neglected landscapes are left for the most neglected people.”
The bulk of Hernandez’s work has focused on what Baltz described as the “defeated” majority; however, in the course of ﬁve decades of photographing and the publication of more than a dozen books, there is an important exception. Rodeo Drive, 1984 (MACK, 2012) brought to light Hernandez’s photographs of luxury shoppers or wannabes in a brilliant series of corporeal color photographs. They compose the last series in which Hernandez depicted people, and the ﬁrst photographs by the artist in color. Hernandez took aim at “the winners, the lumpen rich, enjoying the spoils of their victory on Rodeo Drive.” With the inclusion of Rodeo Drive, 1984, Hernandez’s archive provides an even further-reaching visual atlas of the socially diverse and divided metropolis.
Stephen Hilger is a photographer also born in Los Angeles, a place he frequently photographs. His recent monograph, Back of Town (SPQR Editions, 2016), chronicles the disappearance of a neighborhood in New Orleans. He teaches at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he is chair of photography.
The PhotoBook Review is a publication dedicated to the consideration of the photobook—focusing on the best photography books being published, from the coffee-table book to the handmade artist’s edition, and on creating a better understanding of the ecosystem of the photobook as a whole.