That night – this was during a heat wave – Herzog was sitting on the porch of his rooming house, where the windows had been painted shut, when he met a neighbour, a medical photographer from South Africa. The meeting with this man would change Herzog’s life. They found a basement suite to share, and built a darkroom.
The following year, Herzog left for Vancouver. He worked on the ships in the port, where he earned the nickname Fritz – which became Fred. Eventually, he began working at the University of British Columbia as a medical photographer, taking his now-renowned street photographs on the side.
Vancouver was his muse
Herzog estimates he has taken about 100,000 colour photographs (there are 30,000 black-and-white images too). They represent a priceless record of a city whose subsequent growth has to a great extent wiped out the place he first encountered. They were also artistically pioneering; he was shooting in colour at a time when serious art photography was all about black-and-white.
It would not be unfair to call Herzog’s images beautiful, yet they capture the less-than-pretty aspects of his adopted city. He chose to document the disenfranchised world of what is now Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside rather than the ocean and the mountains; the squalor rather than the cherry blossoms; the working-class reality rather than the tourist-brochure fantasy. His photos are often populated with the downtrodden, the marginalized, the forgotten, and members of minority communities that were more invisible than visible at the time.
Herzog’s work is powerfully honest: He often shot from the hip so as not to jar his subjects out of their candid moments. “When people see you, the picture’s gone for good,” he says. “You cannot repeat it. Once people have noticed you, you have to give up. That’s it. You blew it.”
For years, these works sat in the basement of Herzog’s home. There were some private slide shows and he participated in the odd exhibition, but for the most part, his photos remained unseen.
With advances in technology, Herzog found a way to print his slides to his satisfaction (he insisted the prints match Kodachrome rather than real colours), a gallery to represent him – Andy Sylvester’s Equinox Gallery – and widespread recognition with an exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2007.
The retrospective, says Sylvester, was a turning point. “It allowed audiences to see … a substantial body of colour photography that started in 1953 and continues, that predates a lot of conventions in the history of … serious colour photography. I’m not talking about Vancouver. I’m talking about the world.”
Unlike the masters of what has been called the Vancouver School – such as Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham and Stan Douglas – Herzog’s oeuvre is not photo-conceptual. Still, his name was being uttered in the same breath as theirs: Here was a new master to celebrate, an overnight sensation who had been at it for half a century. At 76, Herzog had found acclaim.
More exhibitions followed: There was a 2010 retrospective in Berlin; then, last year, a show at the National Gallery of Canada and Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. An ambitious retrospective – the inaugural exhibition at Equinox’s new Project Space – was held-over twice, with hundreds of people flocking on weekends to the East Vancouver warehouse space to see his photos.
He is on this year’s shortlist for the $50,000 Scotiabank Photography Award, to be awarded Wednesday. And Fred Herzog: Photographs – with essays by Wall and Douglas Coupland, among others – is up for two BC Book Prizes, which will also be announced next week.
“It’s a phenomenon that in my 31 years I’ve never seen anything like,” says Sylvester. “Because usually it takes decades. But it’s also unusual to have a body of work sitting downstairs that he stubbornly stuck to. … Think about being a writer and constantly writing and no one’s published your work for 54 years. I mean, you’d quit, right?”
Fred Herzog’s living room tells the story of his life: Its secondhand furniture is a testament to the many years of thrift-shop and garage-sale living necessary to support his photography. The Jack Shadbolt painting hanging over the couch is a now-achievable extravagance, thanks to his late-blooming career.
I was there on a rainy Friday morning in October for our interview, greeted with coffee and cookies served by Herzog’s wife, Christel. I arrived a devoted fan; at one point I had calculated whether I could possibly afford to buy one of Herzog’s prints. (I concluded I could not.)