Fred Herzog

Doing reviews on photographers renown for their use of colour in the early days of photography would not be complete without a few words about Vancouver’s very own Fred Herzog. Herzog was born in Germany and emigrated to Canada in 1952, settling for one year in Toronto before coming to Vancouver and turned to documentary photography around 1957. In Michael Turner’s essay ‘An Interview with Fred Herzog’ which is found in the book Fred Herzog: Vancouver Photographs[1], Turner states:

 A glance at his website (http://www.fredherzog.com) indicates an inordinate number of photos from the ‘50s and ‘60s, emphasizing his work in colour (in advance of better-known American artists William Eggleston and Stephen Shore).

By the time Shore set out on his road trip to make his series Uncommon Places between 1973 and 1978, Herzog had already been working in colour for close to thirty years. Herzog’s work remained relatively unnoticed by the art community until fairly recently (Herzog is now eighty-four years old), when the Vancouver Photographs book and corresponding exhibition was launched at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2007. Prior to this, Herzog mainly exhibited his work via slide shows with personal narration. Due to new digital technology it has now become possible for him to make prints of his slides. As Arnold (2007 p. 5) states:

 The marginal status of Herzog’s work was amplified by his use of colour … A further impediment to art-world recognition was the lack of a means through which Herzog’s photographs could be easily exhibited and sold. Herzog made his colour images on Kodachrome, a slide film with excellent sharpness and long tonal range that could not be reproduced in prints.

It almost goes without saying that through their overt connection to the practice of wandering through the city – Herzog’s photographs invoke the gaze of the flâneur …’ (Arnold, 2007 p. 9). Herzog’s prints are relatively small (16” x 20”) so the viewer is invited to stand close and peer into the frame and thereby participating in the photograph as a flâneur as well. The majority of his photographs were captured at a distance which is proportionate to the human eye, so giving the impression to the viewer that the scene is close by.

In the tradition of the flâneur, Herzog positions himself as a narrator outside the depicted action, a figure of whom only the viewer/reader is aware. His views of Vancouver’s downtown streets, their evening crowds energized by the vibrant electricity of neon light, carry the viewer through public space as an empathetic part of the crowd.

Arnold (2007 p. 10)

 Herzog shares a visual language with his two great influencers, Robert Frank and Walker Evans, as well as Stephen Shore. All these men photographed everyday life on the North American continent –things like automobiles, shop windows, street signage (or neon signs in the case of Herzog) and society in general. They were recording a cultural and societal history of their time.

Some of my favourite Herzog images are those of Granville Street in the evening. Granville Street is the street where everything happens: parades, festivals and a multitude of other interesting events. Most of Granville Street is now closed to traffic (with the exception of buses and taxis) and the neon signs of the theatre row are fast disappearing with the regentrification of that southern part of the street. Twenty years ago it was pretty seedy part of town. In his image entitled Crosswalk, one can see the vibrant reds of the neon signs stretching down the length of the street contrasting with the pale blue of the Famous Players Theatre Tickets billboard and car situated just below it. The yellow Ben Hur billboard and the yellow garbage can next to the car provide a cold-warm contrast to the blue hues. The red stop light draws the eye to the centre of the frame, then down to the lady below in the red coat crossing the street. The electric bus cables run overhead, which together with the neon signs, provide a diminishing perspective and creating movement, drawing the viewer further and further into the frame.

In Red Stockings Herzog has simply photographed the lower torsos of a woman and her daughter standing on a street corner. The young girl is wearing a dark green skirt or dress with very bright red tights with short blue ankle socks and matching red shoes (the additive primary colours – red, green and blue). Her mother standing next to her is dressed in a similarly bright red dress. The two vertical figures, with similar stances, contrast with the diagonal lines of the sidewalk and road.

The cold-warm contrast of the orange and blue buildings in Orange Cars Powell provide a very vivid colour combination accentuated by the deep blue of the sky. And with the two orange cars parked in front of these buildings, the orange to blue ratio is probably not 1:2 as Johannes Itten would have advocated, but it works just fine for me, making a very striking image.

Herzog was awarded the Audain Prize in the Visual Arts in 2014 and one of his photographs has been commemorated on a Canadian stamp. Here is a short documentary about Fred Herzog.

Reference List

[1] Arnold, Grant (2007). Fred Herzog: Vancouver Photographs, Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver.

Bibliography

Arnold, Grant (2007). Fred Herzog: Vancouver Photographs, Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver.

Bushey, Jessica (2008). Archives and Photography Exhibition Review – Fred Herzog: Vancouver Photographs. Archivaria, The Journal of the Association of Canadian Archivists, Vol. 65, 97-105.

Fred Herzog [webcast, online] Bijan Ahmadian, July 2014. 5 mins 40 secs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aVDTzl4VDIg (accessed 23/10/2014)

INTERVIEW: Fred Herzog – “In His Own Words” (excerpts). American Suburb X [online]. Available from: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2013/05/interview-fred-herzog-in-his-own-words-excerpts.html [Accessed 13 October, 2014]

Walsh, Meeka (2011) Colour His World: The Photography of Fred Herzog [online]. Border Crossings Magazine, Issue 119. Available from: http://bordercrossingsmag.com/article/colour-his-world-the-photography-of-fred-herzog [Accessed on 15 August, 2014]

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