The Anthony Hernandez show at the Vancouver Art Gallery has been unexpected in a number of ways. The Los Angeles–based photographer’s exhibition is in competition with a big-name summer lineup, from Rembrandt and Vermeer in the 17th-century Dutch Masters show on the gallery’s main floor through Stan Douglas’s dazzling film-and-photo work Klatsassin to an exclusive Andreas Gursky retrospective. Hernandez’s gritty photographs, many of them black-and-white and modest in scale, are installed in a series of small rooms on the VAG’s top floor. Mostly street photographs taken between 1970 and 1984, they represent a thematic and strategic disjunction from the confident materialism, cinematic construction and computer manipulation on view below.
Hernandez was born in Los Angeles in 1947. He is described in the exhibition and its catalogue as self-taught; still, his unstaged, understated street photography is seen by the show’s co-curator, Jeff Wall, as “developing in dialogue with” Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Garry Winogrand and Ed Ruscha. There are also hints here of a Diane Arbus–like sensibility in the intersection of the banal and the everyday grotesque. Street preachers, military reservists, absurdly coiffed women—some of Hernandez’s anonymous subjects look directly at the camera, others appear startled or avert their eyes, others still stare fixedly at their companions. It is frequently observed that Hernandez shows us aspects of L.A. far removed from the stereotypes of Hollywood glamour and Beverly Hills privilege. His views of the West Coast city articulate socio-economic disparities and a class system clearly based on skin colour.
Four series from the late 1970s and early 1980s demonstrate a shift from Hernandez’s earlier grab-shot approach to a conceptual or indexical premise. They also reveal the artist’s transition from a hand-held 35-mm camera to a large-format camera on a tripod. Instead of capturing a hectic jumble of faces on crowded streets, Hernandez here locates small human figures within larger architectural or landscape settings.
Planting his conspicuous photographic apparatus at bus stops in his Public Transit Areas series, on downtown plazas in Public Use Areas or beside unpicturesque bodies of water in Public Fishing Areas, Hernandez still manages to achieve a kind of unposed indifference from his subjects. They are aware of his presence, but don’t appear to care much, absorbed as they are in their own unpromising condition. Waiting for a bus that runs infrequently, eating a lonely brown-bag lunch or sitting beside an unmoving fishing rod, they are locked in a society that offers little in the way of upward mobility—never mind transcendence.