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Vancouver photographer Fred Herzog stands beside one of his photographs during a press preview at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Jan. 25, 2007. (Jeff Vinnick/Jeff Vinnick / The Globe and Mail)
Vancouver photographer Fred Herzog stands beside one of his photographs during a press preview at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Jan. 25, 2007. (Jeff Vinnick/Jeff Vinnick / The Globe and Mail)

Visual art

The collision: Fred Herzog, the Holocaust and me Add to ...

A whirl of contradictions

The curve ball Fred Herzog threw in his living room last fall has left me shaken. What to make of these comments from the man who captured so sensitively and unblinkingly the underbelly of Vancouver?

They also, to stay with baseball metaphors, appear to have come out of left field. I have not been able to find any record of him saying such things before or since. Andy Sylvester, who has known him for years, has never heard any such thoughts. I spoke with Sarah Milroy, former Globe and Mail art critic, about this as well. As his biographical essayist for the new book, she spent many hours interviewing him, and he never expressed any such views, although they probed his war years deeply.

I did wonder about his state of mind at 81, but listening to the interview, I am struck by his ability to remember small details and recount them with precision. He seems lucid and articulate. He suffers from some serious health problems, to be sure, but they do not appear to have been a factor here. During our last conversation, he told me, “My memory is not intact, and when my blood sugar is low I quite often say nonsense. That wasn’t the case when you talked to me and that incident occurred.”

Cultural history is rife with debate about whether an artist’s life or personal views matter to their work. Do Picasso’s nudes look different when seen through the lens of his misogyny? Is it possible to listen to Wagner, to read Ezra Pound, without their anti-Semitic beliefs darkening the experience? Herzog doesn’t belong in this company, but the question weighs on me: Should his art be reassessed in light of what he has said?

Walking through the Equinox Project Space, not quite five months after our meeting, I am a whirl of contradictions.

I look at the people around me, enraptured by the photographs and the memories they evoke. I wonder what they would think if they had heard the words I had heard. “So-called Holocaust.”

Does the art look different to me? Yes, it does. But like the photographs, this is not black-and-white. In a way, the pictures look more interesting, more layered – rich with history: not only Vancouver’s but the world’s.

After months of living with this, I’m surprised: I am able, I think, to see it all through Herzog’s battered lens.

I see his photography as the expression of a victim whose pain was not deemed valid in light of the atrocities of his countrymen and what others suffered; a young man who came to Canada and had to remain silent, but whose work speaks volumes.

I spend a lot of time in front of Man with Cane. An older Asian man – Chinese, probably – and a child stand by the stairs to the Ho Sun Hing Co. printing shop. I wonder what brought them there. Not to the grimy Chinatown sidewalk, but to Canada. Was it their own distress? Their parents’? Their ancestors’? Was it the hope of something better for their children? Whatever it was, it’s no doubt a familiar story. It’s what brought Fred Herzog here, my parents, so many of us. The man with the cane, too – who might be Irish or Ukrainian or who knows what.

What we have all escaped might differ in detail and scale, but here we all are: a grand collision

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