Recognition came late in life for photographer Fred Herzog.
Decades after he captured his most striking images of Vancouver street life in the 1950s and ’60s, critics now praise his pioneering use of rich, vivid colour, ranking him among the most famous street-photography colourists, such as William Eggleston and Helen Levitt.
Mr. Herzog was long a presence in the Vancouver art scene and a friend of many painters and other photographers, but his huge body of work was practically unknown. Few people had seen his photos or recalled attending one of the slide shows he gave in local artists’ circles. When he started trying to sell some of those now-celebrated images online, it didn’t go well, remembers his friend, the acclaimed photographer Christos Dikeakos.
He wasn’t reaching the right market for such high-calibre work. He was selling them for $300 or $350, Mr. Dikeakos said. They now sell in the thousands of dollars.
Mr. Herzog’s work had been in some exhibits over the years, but interest began truly building when curator Bill Jeffries included him in a 2003 exhibition of Vancouver street photography at Presentation House Gallery (now the Polygon Gallery) in North Vancouver. Still, “I would be bumping into Fred at various functions and he would like to go to photo stores to see some of his friends, [but] he really felt that he was kind of overlooked. There was a melancholy about him,” Mr. Dikeakos said.
Mr. Herzog asked Mr. Dikeakos for help, maybe even to become his dealer. Mr. Dikeakos didn’t think that would work out. Instead, he helped Mr. Herzog sort through his collection of more than 100,000 colour images of street scenes, along with tens of thousands of black-and-white photos.
By day, Mr. Herzog established a career as an accomplished medical photographer at the University of British Columbia and, for a number of years, taught photography in the fine-art department there and at Simon Fraser University. But his oeuvre came from walking Vancouver’s streets, amassing a trove of documentary images stored carefully in the front room and basement of his house in Vancouver’s Kerrisdale neighbourhood. He was animated when taking photos, angling his body, sometimes shooting literally from the hip to capture a fleeting moment.
Fred Ulrich Herzog died in Vancouver on Sept. 9, after suffering from cancer and worsening diabetes. He was 88. He leaves his daughter, Ariane, and son, Tyson. His wife, Christel, died in 2013.
While most photographers point their lenses at Vancouver’s mountain and ocean views, Mr. Herzog focused on its people. He was at home capturing the gritty exteriors of the Downtown Eastside, Chinatown, Granville Street and other pockets of transient street life. Yet, unlike other acclaimed mid-century street photographers (including Robert Frank, who died in Nova Scotia on the same day as Mr. Herzog), he roamed back alleys and lonely avenues with Kodachrome slide film in his cameras, when the prevailing aesthetic for serious photography was still black and white.
His photography bursts with colour, showing a Vancouver barely recognizable today, save for such touchstones as the Vogue Theatre sign, or a bus-stop sign listing Dunbar, Arbutus and other familiar bus routes, or the ubiquitous mountains, which only rarely entered Mr. Herzog’s frame. Yet, the photos still feel like Vancouver: corner stores festooned with Coca-Cola and 7UP signs; an enormous, mauve Pontiac with rear fins nestled behind a rain-soaked house; the startling bright red of 1950s neon signs on Granville Street; skies with possibly the richest, deepest blue ever caught on film. Above all, he focused on ordinary people, often in moments of solitude.
Mr. Dikeakos, through his connections with the Vancouver Art Gallery, offered to bring curator Grant Arnold, the gallery’s Audain Curator of British Columbia Art, to the house to see some of the work. Mr. Arnold was awed by Mr. Herzog’s photography, but the printing process still needed improving and much more work was necessary to cull the best of the collection into a solo exhibit for the museum. And there were significant risks for Mr. Herzog.
“It was a big financial gamble to do the exhibition. He had spent a lot of his life savings to make the prints. … We did all the framing, but he had to do all the scans and pay for the prints," Mr. Arnold said. “We are talking about several hundred works. That was very expensive, and I know he used a chunk of his life savings to pay for that.”
Andy Sylvester of Vancouver’s Equinox Gallery also worked extensively with Mr. Herzog. “I think Andy was really the right person to represent Fred, because Andy didn’t just take Fred’s work into the gallery and try to sell it," Mr. Arnold said. “There was a whole way of working with Fred in terms of cataloguing all the slides, determining the editions of the prints and the size of the editions.”
“Especially when Fred’s health started to decline and after Fred’s wife, Christel, passed away, Equinox helped him out a lot, even in terms of managing his everyday life, as well as his photography archive,” Mr. Arnold said.
The images were a world away from his early life. Mr. Herzog was born on Sept. 21, 1930, in Bad Friedrichshall, Wuerttemberg, in southern Germany. His childhood was upended by the Second World War and a divided household, his father being in survival mode and his mother more supportive of the war, as Mr. Herzog once told writer and curator Sarah Milroy in a biographical essay for Fred Herzog: Photographs, a retrospective published in 2011.
It left him with searing memories of the bombings and destruction. One interview in 2012 with The Globe and Mail sparked uncharacteristic controversy when he referred to the “so-called Holocaust” and questioned his knowledge of its true scope, which he tried to correct in the conversation. Those who knew him and subsequent interviewers saw the comments as an anomaly, a fumbled use of words that was unrepresentative of Mr. Herzog’s views.
The wide critical and public appreciation of his work did not change.
“Fred was in no way a Holocaust denier at all,” said Mr. Arnold, who discussed the war at length with Mr. Herzog on breaks during the long process of sorting through photos. He added that he wouldn’t have mounted the exhibition if he thought Mr. Herzog held such views.
“As a way of dealing with people in his shyness, he paradoxically started talking a lot, as a way of filling up the space and getting his nervousness out, unaware of how he sounded,” Mr. Arnold said. It was a frustration Mr. Herzog felt when talking about the atrocities of the war and the silence that followed – just as his schoolmates would maddeningly talk only about soccer once the fighting ended, the photographer told Ms. Milroy.
Mr. Dikeakos said that the main point overlooked even by Mr. Herzog himself was that the empathy and deep humanitarianism in his work (documenting the cultural diversity of Vancouver, the common man, the changing city) co-existed with a lifetime of having to come to terms with the war, after leaving Germany as an orphaned young man. His mother and father had died of illnesses during and soon after the war, respectively. When he left, he had no interest in returning.
As a child, he had been struck by photographs of Canada (undoubtedly the scenic variety, not the kind he would later take himself). He arrived in Toronto in 1952 and settled in Vancouver the following year, working for a time on steamships running up the coast, while developing a consuming passion for photography, which included photographing bird and butterfly migrations.
When the Vancouver Art Gallery mounted Mr. Herzog’s first solo show in 2007, the photographer received praise not only from the art world, but from Vancouverites seeing his photos as a rich document of the city. During guided tours, museum goers would often know as much or more about the history contained within the images than the curator or even the artist.
Jeff Wall, a world-renowned photo-conceptualist, best known for staging photographic tableaux (an approach entirely different from that of Mr. Herzog), praised Mr. Herzog for capturing a Vancouver now lost to what Mr. Wall calls lifeless modernism. “And this lifelessness has been the central artistic problem for photographers in Vancouver for the past thirty to forty years,” Mr. Wall said in a written critique in the book Fred Herzog: Photographs.
Unlike the photo-conceptualists, Mr. Herzog was out to capture what was really there in front of his lens. But in the end, he and the conceptualists were after the same thing: telling a story of one kind or another. As Mr. Dikeakos said, each of Mr. Herzog’s photos is “almost like a one-shot movie.”