L.A. 1971 by Anthony Hernandez
Opening Anthony Hernandez’s recent book, L.A., 1971, feels akin to pushing open the imposing, space-aged door depicted across the publication’s aluminum cover. The only information about the location appears cryptically on the left-hand door, “OPEN 8-12 NO SUNDAYS.” Hernandez’s photograph provides no further context — no building façade, no neighboring shops, no sidewalks. The door stands alone.
Documented as they exit this mystery venue, the subjects photographed by Hernandez’s 35mm camera provide no further clues about the location or what transpires behind its heavy doors. Some wear sunglasses or carry bags or have lit cigarettes. Their apparel ranges from suits and dresses to khakis with button-downs. They emerge from a pitch-black space, often alone, though occasionally followed by the faint presence of other exiting patrons. After much consideration — specifically noting its odd and inconvenient business hours — I creatively concluded this must be a government agency. Ultimately, I discovered Hernandez made these photographs outside a bar/restaurant, capturing the spontaneous expressions of patrons as they responded to the bright sunlight outside. The opportunity to devise different narratives from just twelve photographs is a testament to the compelling character of this small selection of images.
I often associate the work of Anthony Hernandez with large-format, color photographs of de-peopled and/or abandoned spaces. This reductive view, however, excludes his early black-and-white pictures made on the streets of Los Angeles. The photographs in L.A. 1971 were all taken on the same day and are presented unedited, in the same order Hernandez took them. The strength of this sequence is the consummate coalescence of vision and serendipity, a talented photographer executing a simple project with fascinating results.
I am reminded of Andy Warhol’s “screen tests” when I look at these pictures. The screen tests were short films made in front of monochromatic backdrops where subjects were instructed to sit with “no action.” As one of Warhol’s sitters, Mary Woronov remarked, “[y]ou can project your image for a few seconds, but after that it slips and your real self starts to show through.” Photographed in front of the same background with the camera in the same position, Hernandez’s portraits similarly document a moment when the “real self” emerges; the distinctive subtleties of each individual become apparent as one flips between the images. He captures the moment these people surface from darkness into the glaring sun and the unposed, involuntary responses this commonplace activity triggers. Sometimes his subjects look directly into the lens; other times, they remain immersed in whatever activity they were engaged in as the door swings open. Hernandez facilitates our voyeuristic longing to examine other people, allowing us to inspect at close range the eccentricities of human behavior.
As an object, form follows content seamlessly. The aluminum cover beautifully mimics the materiality of the door that serves as a constant in all the photographs. The mustard colored linen end pages are quintessentially of the Seventies, conjuring this era before we encounter the first image. The photographs themselves are impeccably printed; the silken hues of black, white and gray have a faint metallic undertone that imparts a sense of depth to the images.
Photographer David Goldblatt once said, “[t]he mission of the photographer is to put a frame around things you have seen all your life and yet haven’t seen at all.” Hernandez’s L.A. 1971 does just that. He not only literally frames his subjects, but also draws our attention to the unnoticed peculiarities of unguarded human behavior.