New York

Anthony Hernandez

The Opsis Foundation

In his cool studies of the unseen corners where Los Angeles’ homeless sleep, Anthony Hernandez adopts the stance of an archeologist, or maybe a police photographer. In only one setting is the resident at home—a blanket-covered figure sleeps under the Hollywood Freeway surrounded by his collection of junk. These sites have the air of transient ruins—the residents scrabble together walls out of cardboard boxes, old car seats (this is L.A., after all), and broken-off planks, scrunching their possessions into the spaces beneath freeway overpasses or simply spreading out a soiled blanket in a bower of weeds.

Hernandez calls these “landscapes for the homeless,” and the photographs are indeed beautiful, delicately colored images—full of lavenders, yellows, and off-grays—presented in the form of massive Cibachrome prints, with all the dizzying illusion of depth that this process can suggest. They are also sophisticated compositions, with Hernandez turning the forms of the scenes into self-conscious, cubist arrangements. The wall of flattened cardboard boxes around someone’s private space is also a series of squares with the formal variety of a Paul Klee collage; a rumpled blanket strewn with the buds of a flowering bush has a romantic beauty appropriate to a movie love story. In one wall-sized work, Under the 7th Street Bridge at the Los Angeles River, 1989, an amazing collection of curiosa—a pair of two-toned shoes, the empty box from a Bigfoot Happy Meal, the head of a plastic clown—appears to float in an ambiguous picture space that finally resolves itself into a bare patch of dirt splotched with motor oil.

But sophisticated formal beauty is not the approved rhetorical mode for depicting the homeless. It’s too light, too aware of its own smartness, too much concerned with giving the viewer pleasure. The “correct” way to depict horrific social realities is to cast them in the dramatic suffering mode, so the viewer can witness the other person’s exemplary pain, preferably presented in grainy black and white to evoke metonymically the subject’s grimy reality. Not that either mode does much to change the reality, without a political program to feed into. By themselves photographs are weak tools for effecting social change; these days, with the emotional power of the photograph devalued through overfamiliarity, they’re even losing their power to change people’s minds. This is especially true when the same old rhetorical forms are used. We’ve seen them before—our tears don’t jerk like they used to.

Hernandez’s photographs are solidly perched on this slippery moral ground. Just what is he trying to get us to feel about homelessness at this late date? He doesn’t propose that we get angry at greedy landlords or an indifferent government; he doesn’t even show us the people we are (presumably) to care about, feel sorry for. But in the end his cool view may be a cannier approach to getting people to think, one more weary time, about the question, to see through the clichés of old rhetoric and remember the reality.

Charles Hagen