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Photographer Anthony Hernandez gets his due at SFMOMA

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Anthony Hernandez offers an arresting image of Southern California car culture in “Automotive Landscapes #35, 1978.” (Courtesy Anthony Hernandez)
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Anthony Hernandez, who brought the landscape of Los Angeles, especially its poor and working-class areas, to street photography, has long merited a retrospective.

It’s a reality at last. “Anthony Hernandez” is the inaugural special exhibition at the Pritzker Center for Photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It covers the artist’s more than 45 years of taking pictures and reflects numerous stylistic changes as well as the enduring social concerns that have characterized his work.

Described by curator Erin O’Toole as a prolific and constantly evolving artist who “hasn’t received the attention he deserves,” the largely self-taught Hernandez launched his career around 1970.

Over the decades, he has shifted between black-and-white and color photography and 35mm and large-format cameras.

His work has included street portraiture, urban landscapes and abstraction.

While he has photographed other cities, his primary “studio” is his native Los Angeles, whose concrete sprawl, auto graveyards, beaches, and other particulars he renders with striking compositions, visual poetry and an efficient combination of surface allure and underlying human current.

In early-career black-and-white street portraits, subjects appear unsettled or overwhelmed as Hernandez’s camera captures their faces. We see a signature style emerging.

Beach pictures, also from the early 1970s, are inspired by Edward Weston’s artfully posed nudes but instead, with subtle humor, feature contorted figures, again illustrating Hernandez’s uniqueness.

Landscape images include selections from the artist’s “Public Transit Areas,” “Public Fishing Areas,” and “Automotive Landscapes” series. In a scene that elegantly captures one of L.A. car culture’s unglamorous aspects, a photogenic broken-down vendor truck dominates the foreground of a site containing discarded tires and vehicle carcasses.

Images from Hernandez’s “Landscapes for the Homeless” series, dating from 1988 to 1991, are highlight.

These pictures of encampments near freeways often feature no human figures, but by documenting the possessions that former inhabitants have left behind — cardboard, food containers, a razor — Hernandez makes a human presence, and the lives of L.A.’s homeless residents, felt.

His interest in class divides also reveals itself in portraits of upscale shoppers from the artist’s “Rodeo Drive” series, which marks one of the artist’s early triumphs in color.

Abandoned and incomplete buildings, another signature subject, are on view in pictures shot in L.A., Oakland and Rome and in the artist’s recent and relevant “Discarded” series. The “Discarded” project contains somber images of vacated homes — human consequences of the foreclosure crisis.

The wide-ranging show also includes selections from the artist’s “Everything” series, which explores the state of the Los Angeles River, and a 25-foot-long abstract mural, inspired by L.A.’s South Central area and created by Hernandez for the retrospective.

IF YOU GO
Anthony Hernandez
Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, third floor, 151 Third St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (except closed Wednesdays and until 9 p.m. Thursdays); closes Jan. 1
Admission: $19 to $25; free for ages 18 and younger
Contact: (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org

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