The photographs that comprise Rodeo Drive were made during a period from 1983 to 1985, and were published in book form in the autumn of 2012, some twenty-seven years after the project was completed. I re-state the chronology to raise a question about the way that these images – so recognisably characterised by the vivid lustre and ostentatious venality of 1980s popular culture – might continue to inform our sense of our own contemporary consumer society, at a point so long after their creation, and in a moment of political and economic history that is at least superficially so distinct from their own.
To my mind among the most remarkable achievements of a great work of art is its ability to convince us that it anticipated and defined the essence of its historical moment – defined it so clearly that one begins to believe that essence to have been entirely the artist’s invention. The persuasive lucidity of hindsight inevitably plays a pivotal role here, as great art imitates life so clearly that by an inverse gesture we come to believe that life is in turn imitating that art. For this to occur, however, such work must have an enduring authority. Looking through the terse, flushed and jagged images that make up Rodeo Drive, I begin to believe that Anthony Hernandez identified on that street the apogee of everything most noxious, absurd and damaging about the Reaganite consumer jamboree, and distilled into units made up of mere fractions of a second.
The signal image of this remarkable book appears slightly less than halfway through the forty-one photographs in the sequence, and depicts a woman in an over-size dark army green tee-shirt that runs fully half the length of her naked thighs. The boat-neck collar of her top lays bare her long elegant neck and her painstakingly coiffed Farah Fawcett-style hair. She is poised in front of a half wall, behind which are arrayed a series of dining tables, and short racks of casual wear hung from hooks along the abutting wall of a store some few feet up the street from where she stands, presumably engaged in an effort to sell them. She is frozen mid-gesture, her lips taut but faintly smiling, her gaze distant, even, inquisitive and sombre. It is the stilted nature of that gesture that produces the deep shock of the image, as her hands – cocked at the wrist – loosely point like make believe pistols in opposite directions, the sardonic gesture of a mock gunslinger imitating a cowboy in a Western movie. She stands with her body slightly rotated toward us, arms raised to the waist – nearly nude, utterly spotless, rendered with a rigidity so deep that it seems she is, in fact, a mannequin – a fleshly incarnation of the movie Weird Science.
The brittleness, the absurdity and the damage to which I referred earlier stem in large part from the acute violence that undergirds the logic of consumption. Such logic encourages us to understand the self as a free-floating assembly of wish lists, to equate contentment with possession, to measure our sense of ourselves in quantifiable units – to see ourselves as objects. The difficulty of the effort of adapting to this degrading ideology is the consistent challenge for the subjects of the photographs in this book. In the image described above Hernandez has distilled the essence of the cultural logic of capitalism: that we should perfect in ourselves the seamless appearance of that which we can sell to each other. His photographs clarify the dreadful small print buried beneath the bright block letters of the booming 1980s: that the sum of ourselves is the measure of our success in the obligatory struggle for shiny new possessions.
“Unlike Vodou worshippers in Haiti, we in contemporary America acknowledge no deities; we deny a pantheon of supernatural beings who determine our destinies, who have the power to “possess” our bodies or intervene in our lives. In our denial, we give more power to the archetypes that we indeed have created: those images of beauty, of sexuality, of wealth and power that are emblazoned in neon across our skies, projected into our movie palaces, beamed into our homes and offices — that possess us, in short, not simply in the course of a religious ceremony but throughout every waking minute of our lives.”
Hernandez is known chiefly as a photographer of the social landscape, his work most commonly ascribed to the genre of street photography and associated with the ascendancy of the The New Topographics. The pivotal importance of landscape in his work flows from the ways in which his images clarify how place is formative of behaviour, and emblematic of deeper cultural norms. His images are simultaneously capacious and concise – broad enough to lay out a comparative basis on which to see how ideas possess us and govern our behaviour, yet narrow enough to transfigure that interaction into a figurative metaphor.
In Rodeo Drive we see the activity of possession on two parallel planes. We see it in terms of the literal physical possession by men of the women who accompany them, and simultaneously in the metaphorical possession by this famous street of the harried shoppers who struggle to navigate its ostentatious exclusivity. We must include Hernandez’s own gaze in any estimate of the entitlement that informs the capture of his subjects, even as they so frequently confront his intrusion with a circumspection or disdain that calls the photographer’s privilege into question. Hernandez’s images embody many individual efforts to conform to the cosmetic rigours of a landscape that everywhere demands a level of flamboyance and wealth that few can match, at least with any credible sense of comfort.
The palette of Hernandez’s images militates against any edge of vibrancy in the loudness that characterised the look of this time, fighting against the allure that this new consumerist culture sought to naturalize. In the brusque manner of the portraits we are located definitively outside of the space Hernandez seeks to explore – both by the wary, hostile gaze of his subjects, and by the absence of any generous interaction with his lens. The wide frames of his images point to the great density of the investment in this newly normalised pursuit of the self, but more than this they allow a little space for the unentitled who clamour in front of window displays, nervously cling to job applications, or cluster listlessly at the edge of the picture frame.
In a sequence from the eighteenth to the twenty-seventh image we see a parade of photographic fragments as lucid as film stills – a sequence which in its way expands upon the vulgarity of a climate Cindy Sherman’s images critiqued, but that does so instead in the more grounded documentary form of candid parables. Hernandez’s images emerged some years after Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, but my comparison is not intended to suggest influence so much as consonance, as each artist in their own inimical vernacular has expounded on the creeping normalcy of objectification in an increasingly exhibitionist 1980s culture. The first three images of this sequence summarise the alternating dynamic in which Hernandez’s subjects seek to possess each other or an elusive ideal, even as they themselves are subsumed by the street to which they have been drawn in the way of moths to a flame.
A grim-faced man well past his early fifties strides ahead of a much younger woman, his comb-over mirroring the folded grey silk handkerchief in his blazer pocket – her expression cool and defensive, his sour and aggressive – the deep navy blue of his blazer jacket setting off the bright royal blue of her dress, which hangs open in false lapels down to her cleavage to reveal a jewelled necklace matching the eyeshadow under her bouncy short-cropped curls. What is most striking about this pair is the sharp contrast of vigour and rigidity – mirrored in the contrast in the colour of their clothes, but grounded in the stark difference in their ages. The older man is ill-fitted to the youthful cosmetic exuberance of a culture he appears to well able to afford, but not to assimilate, and the intrusion of the camera lens highlights a tension already latent in his distance from the youthful beauty he parades on his arm. She is as inscrutable to him as she is distant from him, and his wealth cannot resolve the disjuncture.
In the following image, a slim voluptuous blonde woman stands in the shade of an awning dressed all in bright white except for a flamingo-pink belt strapped under her gold-buttoned jacket. Her deep red lipstick mirrors the splash of colour in the Coca-Cola logo that swirls up the face of the white soda can that nestles reverently in her hands, even as she nestles against a similarly bright white wall: one product resting in the embrace of another like Russian dolls – the glistening mirrored jewellery display behind her suggesting she has escaped for a lunch break from similarly decorative enclosure. In this portrait there is a question of the perfection of the object in a space where all effects seem eerily congruent, from the white trouser suits and white walls to the burnished gold of her hair, the gold frame of the jewellery display and the gold of the earrings behind her. In a sense she is rendered as both a product and a mirage in an image that powerfully, yet straightforwardly invokes the relationship of illusion to power and desire.
In the third image, we are bludgeoned by the intensely remorseful, deeply anxious gaze of a woman in a bright red blouse being marshalled along the sidewalk by a man whose loutishness is crystallised in the casual swagger of his open-mouthed stare. The contrast between their gazes is as profound as that between their clothing – his tight amateurish impression of Thomas Crown seeming somehow more ostentatious than the pleated flowing lines of her elegant evening wear. There is an utter absence of consonance or elegance in the moment their gestures describe, which is so at odds with the congruence of their expensive attire. We are instead given a sense of entrapment and force, a sense of a struggle embodied in the possessive grasp by the man of the right arm of his partner (sandwiched between him and the overarching wall in a manner mimicked by the possessions she holds tightly to her person). She seems both to implore and to resent us simultaneously – a position we are placed in by Hernandez’s direct diagonal intervention – while implicating the powerful force that constrains her in the angling of her head.
Hernandez’s subjects are at all points terse, guarded, sombre, jostled, ill-at-ease – folded in on themselves or tightly grasping those around them – at times with a severity that suggests the inordinate pressures of some invisible but visceral force. They are contained by the street whose wares will ostensibly liberate them. They are controlled by the luxuries of the free market. Where they exhibit finery they fail to seduce us, and where they exhibit vanity they somehow succeed chiefly in mocking themselves. At length it seems that despite an enormous investment in the bright attractions of luxury, the anxiety that is its chief by-product reflects a deeper failure of human imagination, and no happiness seems to trickle down from this infamous and exclusive peak.
The critic Max Kozloff has noted that “the harsher pleasures old photographs once stimulated shade off into lovely recall and escapist fantasy,” which would seem to argue against the contemporary publication of work made many decades ago. To champion such work is not to simultaneously mourn some earlier halcyon moment, even though in these images what seems most clearly to be illustrated is the terrible normalisation of exhibitionism as a measure of self-worth in western society. One need not mourn the fifties to critique this deeply atomising turn.
Rodeo Drive has been published in a moment that continues to bear witness to the resurgence of much photographic work from the eighties and before, amongst which Joel Sternfeld’s re-issued American Prospects and Philip Lorca diCorcia’s Hustlers take their place alongside Sternfeld’s newly published First Pictures and Michael Galinsky’s Malls Across America as evidence of a renewed investment in art made in America in this pivotal period. It is difficult to discern whether this work is now finding a place in public because of a deep appetite in our culture for the styles of long past decades, or because of a conviction that this historical period is of acute and continuing relevance. The quality of the work would suggest the latter, and it is that quality that offers us an enduring invitation to reassess our own sophistication all these long decades since.
It seems to me that what these newly published images from the 1980s saw with astonishing clarity was the rapidity and the profundity of the adoption of Reaganite consumerist norms, most notable amongst them being their atomising and marginalising effects. But more than this (although in itself this was a substantial insight) they recognised in Reaganite neoliberalism both an improbability and an inherent contradiction. They recognised that rather than being liberated, people were being afflicted by their desires – assaulted by a lack that was itself an elegant confection.
The effort required by the quality of this work is simultaneously one of recollection and projection – perhaps essential actions in the reading of any literate photographic image, but in the context of our historically amnesiac culture an effort of ever-greater importance. The objective must be to see past the sheen of nostalgia to the pattern of a continuing complaint: that of our inability to find true solace or joy in the bright baubles we are persistently instructed either to seek or to become. Beyond the rewards of their humane lucidity (something not to be confused with individual generosity, but rather with respectful honesty) the virtue of time spent with these wonderful images lies in their timeliness. It is us they so clearly saw traipsing listlessly down this same street, some three decades into their future. We can no more disown them than the all-pervasive normalcy of the landscape that they so clearly prefigured.
Hernandez’s photographs reflect the problematic contradictions of free individual agency in a society governed by consumption, and in their contemporary publication they invite those who examine them to ponder the extent of the ‘distance’ that separates our culture from that in which they were made. If it is true, as Kozloff writes, that “[w]e spectators see what those in the picture do not wish to see, and their reluctance becomes the subject of our look”, then it is equally true that these photographs mirror that ironic convention in an inverse form, looking out on our blindness as we look in on the blindness of their subjects.