Renowned Vancouver photographer Fred Herzog dies at 88 – CBC.ca

Renowned Vancouver photographer Fred Herzog dies at 88 - CBC.ca
Noted Vancouver photographer Fred Herzog dies at age 88
He was best known for his colourful photographs, which captured Vancouver street scenes and changing times in the 1950s and '60s when almost all other art photography was in black and white.

Author and art critic Michael Turner wrote the foreword for a collection of Herzog's photographs in 2007. 

What also set his work apart was that often the passersby that were his subjects had no idea he was shooting them. Usually, he caught them anonymously and unawares, in the tumult of the everyday. One of the few shots where people ever posed for him was one of his most famous: the1962 photo Boys on Shed, with six kids sitting on the roof of a dilapidated garage behind one of the now-disappearing wooden houses of Old Vancouver, and two more standing beside it.

Fame came late to Vancouver street photographer Fred Herzog, who died Monday at 88

"Fred Herzog, for those who pay attention to the city, has always been around in different ways," Turner said. 

In his later days Herzog sometimes bemoaned the lack of colour on the Vancouver streets of today, compared to the time when he shot its streets.  Its boring now, he argued, because when you walk down the street you see only a grey concrete building with aluminum trimmings and a neat sign which youve already seen 200 times before because its part of a chain of dry cleaners or banks or sandwich shops.

Fred Herzog, iconic documentarian of Vancouvers streets, dies at 88

Herzog captured Vancouver in a way no one else has been able to, Turner said, capturing the city's history and the industries it was built on.

It was really unusual, in the 50s, 60s, and even into the 70s, for people who thought of themselves as artists to use colour materials, said Grant Arnold, Audain curator for the Vancouver Art Gallery, told the Straight when Herzog won the Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts in 2014. Colour materials were generally associated with the commercial world, such as advertising.

"Fred was someone who wandered the streets taking pictures of people of that [era] and living in that," he said.  

However he exploded into the public consciousness when the VAG presented a huge retrospective of his colour photos from the 50s, 60s, and 70s in 2007. Through digital technology, over 100 colour Kodachrome slides—selected from the roughly 80,000 photographs in Herzogs personal archive—were turned into large, luminous prints for the show.

Herzog had been taking photographs of city life in Vancouver for decades using Kodachrome slide film.

Herzog taught himself photography as a young man in Germany, initially taking travel pictures and landscapes. Immigrating to Canada in 1952, he started shooting photographs of Vancouver streets as soon as he arrived in the city. In a time when serious photographers used strictly black-and-white film, Herzogs photos were groundbreaking.

It wasn't until he was in his 70s that printing technology had caught up to a standard where Herzog could recreate the richness of his Kodachrome colour slides in print form.

Herzog had his first solo art exhibit in 2007 at the Vancouver Art Gallery and the dated photos were a revelation to art lovers who had never heard of him before.

"He would take these walks through the city where he thought there would be an interest of people and specifically architecture and signage that was so prolific and interesting in Vancouver," said Andy Sylvester, owner of Equinox Gallery.

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Herzog is recognized mostly for his photographs but is also remembered for stirring wide-spread controversy after an interview with Globe and Mail arts reporter Marsha Lederman in 2012, when he referred to "the so-called Holocaust."

“Printing techniques of the time … just couldn’t reproduce those Kodachrome colours. So he patiently just filed his slides in his basement and waited for technology to catch up to show what he wanted to see in a tangible paper or printed format.“

Lederman, the child of Holocaust survivors, was shocked to hear such a statement from a Canadian so renowned for his work, she later wrote in an article. 

Herzog did not achieve major commercial success until late in life, with his first major retrospective shown at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2007. Since then, he has shown several major exhibits in Canada and Germany, and released several books of photography.

"If you look at his photographs, what you see is a relationship to humanity that is undeniable," said Sylvester. 

“The fact that we have a body of street photography, in colour, that comes from our city … he was one of, you know, maybe a dozen people in the world working in colour in the 50s in terms of street photography. So that’s really rare.“

"So his relationship to other human beings, his relationship to his history and to his relationship to his fellow citizens is simply unblemished for me. Whether he had an uncomfortable moment is what it is."  

“It’s not a question of learning all the techniques or learning composition or learning about the art of it. I think what is important is that you are out there as a person and relate to those objects and those people who intrigue you.”

Sylvester said those comments haven't tarnished the photographer's artistic legacy, as far as he is concerned. 

“The majority of his photographs are done on Kodachrome slide film which has this particular richness to it. The reds are just sort of extra velvety and there’s just something really particular to that colour,” said Brodovictch.

"I know him and I know his work and his work continues to be admired by collectors, by museums and by all sorts of people around the world," he said.

His legacy, however, is not without controversy. In 2012, he sparked backlash when he referred to the “so-called Holocaust” in an interview with the Globe and Mail, and expressed doubts about the extent of the genocide.

He is survived by his daughter Ariane and son Tyson and was predeceased by his wife Christel, who passed away in 2013.

Herzog, who began shooting street scenes in 1952, has been celebrated for his iconic images of Vancouver which captured the city in its unvarnished and unguarded moments, often focusing on working-class subjects.

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“When we had our first big show here of this work in 2012, people were coming in from Victoria, they were from coming from up north, they were bound and determined to see this show of his work.

Herzog, who died Monday, is survived by his daughter Ariane and son Tyson. His wife Christel died in 2013.

He had a preference for Kodachrome slide film and has been lauded by the New York Times as “a pioneer who mastered color photography before such a thing respectively existed.”

Herzog was a young immigrant from Germany when he arrived in Vancouver in 1952. During the day, he worked as a medical photographer for local hospitals and at the University of B.C.

“Just an incredible document about changing cities, in particular Vancouver, in colour, which was incredibly rare,” said Equinox Gallery director Sophie Brodovictch.

In his spare time he walked the streets of Vancouver with his camera taking photographs of people, buildings and whatever scenes caught his eye.

Andy Sylvester, owner of Equinox Gallery, said he started talking to Herzog seriously about representing him in about 2005.

Brodovictch said his body of work continues to attract fans, many of whom are not the traditional type to frequent an art gallery.

Sylvester said it was rare that a photographer of Herzog’s stature managed to make a body of work of about 200 good pictures, and he did it with no support.

“I’m not really that much of a photographer,” Herzog told BCTV, now Global News, in a 1994 interview.

“Most artists of that kind of significance who have made a great body of work have been supported with galleries, museums, universities and so forth,” he said. “Fred essentially did this on his own.”

Herzog, who was born in Stuttgart, Germany and emigrated to Canada in 1952, worked as a medical photographer by day.

Sylvester said Herzog’s photographs didn’t develop out of a conceptual framework in the studio. They came from walking.

“They come from that process of walking and that intuitive, deductive reasoning of where to be and how to take a picture when you’re there,” he said.

Sylvester said two of Herzog’s big influences were Walker Evans, who documented the effects of the Great Depression in the U.S., and Robert Frank, whose photographs were published in the influential book The Americans and who also died Monday.

Many of Herzog’s photographs were of Vancouver as an urban city rather than an outdoor destination. They were as varied as neon signs on Granville, crowded sidewalks on East Hastings, virtually empty streets disappearing into fog, an abandoned car in Strathcona, and gamblers at the PNE.

Herzog was among the first in the world to make art with colour photographs. In the 1950s and 1960s, many in the art world didn’t take colour photography seriously, considering it amateurish and garish. Most other serious artists took only black-and-white photographs.

Herzog used the unique quality of Kodachrome slide film to accentuate colours and textures. By taking colour rather than black and white photographs, he made his street scenes seem much more modern.

Fred Herzog, Untitled, 1960, inkjet print, Collection of the artist, Courtesy of Equinox Gallery. Handout / Vancouver Sun

Herzog’s big breakout occurred late in life when The Vancouver Art Gallery held the first major retrospective of his work in 2007: Fred Herzog Vancouver Photographs curated by Grant Arnold. Herzog was 76 years of age.

Arnold said for years, many people in the city’s art scene knew Herzog but didn’t know his photography that well. People only became aware of his work if they happened to see one of his slide shows.

It wasn’t until digital technology developed to the point where he could make prints in a way that he felt had the tonal ranges of Kodachrome that people started to become aware of his work.

After the exhibition at the VAG, Herzog’s career took off. A gallery in New York started selling his work and he’s had numerous exhibitions in Europe.

Arnold said of all the artists he’s worked with, Herzog had the fastest trajectory to international recognition.

“He had a really amazing vision in terms of looking at the world and picking out gestures or details that would speak to a larger historical context,” he said.

One of Arnold’s favourite Herzog works is Paris, Café. It shows a pensive man in the window of the café flanked by Chinese and Canadian menus. The glitz and glamour of Paris is undercut as the name of a greasy spoon restaurant in downtown Vancouver while the Santa Claus images speak to how Coca-Cola used advertising to associate the mythical figure with Christmas.

“There are all of those different historical influences merging into one picture,” he said.

Herzog told The Sun in 1994 that he had to work fast and on impulse as he walked around the city with his hand-held 35-mm Leica camera.

“If you don’t trust your instincts, if you don’t trust your first vision, then you lose it,” Herzog said.

Fred Herzog, The Hub, 1958, inkjet print, Collection of the artist, Courtesy of Equinox Gallery. Handout / Handout SUN

Fred Herzog, Hastings and Columbia Street, Vancouver, 1958, chromogenic print, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Handout / Vancouver Sun

Fred Herzog photo – Liquid Foods 1968 – Fred Herzog, 2013 Courtesy of Equinox Gallery, Vancouver Vancouver Sun

Fred Herzog, Foot of Main, 1968, inkjet print, Collection of the artist, Courtesy of Equinox Gallery. Handout / Vancouver Sun

Fred Herzog photo – Boat Scrapers 1 1964 – Courtesy of Equinox Gallery, Vancouver Vancouver Sun