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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

When he was a young boy in Germany, Fred Herzog – back then he was Ulrich; the name Fred came later, in Canada – remembers his mother showing him her school picture, pointing to the Jewish girls in the photo. They were the smartest in the class, she told her young son. Even as a child, he could sense her resentment.

This memory has stayed with Herzog the way a photograph holds on to a moment. It's there, always, even if it remains tucked away in a drawer.

Photographs would, eventually, become a refuge for Herzog. The boy who saw too much in wartime found some peace behind a camera, training his sights on his adopted city of Vancouver with the eager eye of a new arrival, and the skill of a master. For decades, he took tens of thousands of Kodachrome slides that sat largely unseen. It wasn't until he was well into his 70s that recognition came – for his photographs, which burst with colour and history and for himself, a pioneer in his craft.

Fred Herzog had risen from the ashes of his bombed-out youth in Germany to illuminate the history of Vancouver, as arguably the city's most important – if for many years, obscure – visualdocumentarian.

But even 100,000 images of the new world cannot erase the traumas of the past.

Last fall, I had occasion to interview Herzog, who is 81, at his modest home on the west side of Vancouver. The book Fred Herzog: Photographs was being published, and it was an opportunity to talk about his life, his method, the impact of his late-in-life success.

Our conversation about art derailed into what he later described to me as a collision. The turn came when Herzog offered his thoughts on the Holocaust – or, as he initially referred to it, "the so-called Holocaust."

It was a conversation that has stayed with me for months as I returned to Herzog for subsequent discussions, the story was considered by my editors, and I struggled with its meaning and with its potential impact on how Herzog's career will be assessed.

There was – there is – a personal struggle, too. I am a child of Holocaust survivors.

All he owned, gone

Ulrich Herzog was born in the German town of Bad Friedrichshall in 1930 and grew up in Stuttgart amid the intensifying hold of the Nazis. His father was deeply concerned; he knew no good could come of war. His mother, however, was more supportive of the Nazi campaign, even taking young Ulrich to one of Hitler's rallies in 1938.

There was no glory in wartime. His mother died in 1941, after contracting paratyphoid. His father survived his factory being bombed – he was home eating lunch. In 1944, the family home, too, was bombed. Nobody was hurt – Ulrich was safely in the nearby town of Rottweil – but it was devastating. "This was the biggest trauma I personally suffered," Herzog told me. "All my books and toys and things I owned were gone."

His sister's boyfriend, a Hitler Youth leader whom the artist remembers as a fine person and a good role model, was drafted into the army at 18, and died within days of arriving in Russia.

Six months after the war ended – a humiliating defeat for Germany – Herzog was back in school.

"One of the most surprising and devastating things to me was meeting after the war was over with my schoolmates and not one of them would talk about their war experiences," he said. "They only wanted to talk about soccer. That was devastating to me. I just could not believe that this war had already been forgotten by them."

His father died in 1946; Herzog feels the war and its trauma were responsible. Still in high school, Herzog was left in the care of an unloving stepmother who kept food from the children. Later, he worked for wealthy relatives who treated him poorly.

In 1952, Herzog left Germany for Canada, starting out in Toronto. He didn't have much but had brought his camera and other photographic equipment. Before the end of his first day in Toronto, Herzog was out of money. He sold his coin collection for a little less than four dollars and hocked his enlarger at a second-hand store.

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?"

The collision

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.)

It's a question about his early time in Toronto that leads to the Holocaust. We're about 30 minutes into our conversation when I ask whether he, as a German, experienced any racism in postwar Toronto; I note that his employer – an importer of glass and china – was Jewish.

Herzog explains that George Zimmer, with whom he got along very well, had had a business in East Prussia before the war, a big furniture business, and that he must have sold it at a comparatively low price, given the times.

"He never complained to me about that," said Herzog. "That marks him as an unusual person, because even now, many of the people I know, many doctors, are Jewish. And there isn't one who spares me hearing about relatives who were, you know, treated badly during the war and the so-called Holocaust."

My throat goes tight.

"The business with the Germans rounding up the Jews and putting them into cattle cars is true, there's no doubt about that," he continued. "But there were other factors why there were so many undernourished people in the end, because the low-flying fighter bombers made it impossible to supply these camps with food, so there were many people very emaciated from not eating."

"You think that's because they couldn't get food supplies?" I ask.

"You couldn't," he says, and continues to explain.

I'm still having trouble believing where the conversation has gone and try to clarify what he is saying. "So do you believe," I ask, "that the Nazis would have fed the Jews better in these camps had the Allies not been bombing the area?"

He says he wishes he knew all the facts, but this is what he has read.

I had been mostly silent since the "so-called Holocaust" remark; my recorder captures the odd "uh huh" interspersed with his remarks. Finally, about five minutes after he said it, I return to the phrase. "You used the term 'so-called Holocaust.' Why did you?"

Herzog, who has a tendency to ramble, is stopped by my question. He starts to answer, stumbles over his words, takes a moment, then launches in.

"The Holocaust, I should perhaps not say 'so-called.' Here's what it is: I have, I'm interested [in]what went on, but I don't see how statistics were made or arrived at. The number of six million apparently was decided at a meeting in New York in 1945 or '46. And so I don't know whether it was six million or not. And here's what I say: If something is that awful … you don't have to exaggerate it. That there was a principle injustice, and [that it was]indefensible by any standards – that, I have no trouble about. But that people were in such numbers gassed and gotten rid of – that is disputed, depending on where you come from. I don't dispute it, because I have a relative in Germany who used to be the personnel manager of the city where I come from, and he says he has seen the evidence, that he's seen the hardware that was used to gas people.

"But there were other books I have read which say much of this was actually delousing. The rooms with the gas were actually delousing rooms, because lice were one of the biggest problems and the biggest killers of Jews in the camps. So it's something I'd like to see a little bit more carefully, you know, collected: evidence and how the numbers are arrived [at] That people were needlessly killed, there's no doubt. That people died on trains being transported is fact. That people died of hunger at the end of the war is fact. But many people, nine million Germans, were thrown out of wherever they lived. Nine million, and with no place to go. And many of those died of hunger and what not."

He pauses. Is my tape recorder running, he wants to know. Yes, I tell him. He seems troubled.

"It's personal," he says. "And I'm not against anything that is being said except that I would like to see it better documented."

Herzog is very clear that the Nazis "were absolutely mean toward Gypsies and Jews in a totally mean and stupid way," and that he did not like Hitler. "I have no love affair with the fascists. But I'm trying to find out the cause. I'm interested in facts." He points out that his wife's best friend, and his best friends, are Jewish. "So we're not against Jews," he says.

Christel Herzog, likely overhearing the conversation, drifts into the living room and sits, quietly listening. She seems concerned.

("I thought this was going to be about art," she would say to me later. So had I.)

With little prompting, even as we move on to continue the discussion of Herzog's career, and I ask how his late-in-life success has affected him, he returns to the subject of the Holocaust.

"I cannot convincingly say I think everything about it was the way it's being described. That's why I say 'so-called,' and I should not have said that. But what it says, there are some doubts in my mind that the real story is being told. And that is augmented by what happens between Israel and Palestine. The same lack of justice that the Jews experienced in Germany is now experienced by Palestinians in what used to be their country."

At the end of the interview, I reveal my own history to Herzog.

"I have to tell you about my family," I say. "My parents are Holocaust survivors. My mother was in Auschwitz … and all my grandparents were murdered in gas chambers."

Taken aback, it is Herzog who now begins to ask the questions.

"Even those who worked were never well-fed?" he wants to know.

"I stand corrected. I stand corrected," he finally says, and goes searching in his basement for a book of photographs by Roman Vishniac, whose prewar pictures of Jews in Poland constitute an important archive. He insists I take it home. At the door, he is offering explanations; he tells me about his mother, and that class photograph. He emphasizes that he seeks statistics in any matter; that he is in search of the truth, always.

I am shaking when I leave the house. Herzog's cozy living room on the west side of Vancouver is a million miles, a million years, from the horrors of the Second World War. And yet, there they were, right in front of us: A wall. A bridge. Fred Herzog and I share a history.

The Holocaust

My father was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1919; my mother in Radom, Poland, in 1925. They were Jewish. Both are now dead, but throughout their lives they spoke often about the war.

My mother remembered well the German invasion of Poland in September, 1939: It meant she couldn't return to school, after looking forward to it all summer. In 1941, her family was forced out of their comfortable apartment and moved into the cramped ghetto. Her little brother, who did not look Jewish, snuck out of the ghetto regularly, selling cigarettes in exchange for food. It was around this time that my mother was approached on the street by a German soldier and told to report to work cleaning barracks. Ironically, it was a life-saver: From there, she became a forced labourer at a munitions factory, and was there, working, when her parents and little brother were rounded up and deported to Treblinka. They were gassed on Aug. 18, 1942.

In 1944, my mother was sent to Auschwitz, where she was miraculously reunited with her sister. After more than two months of eluding what seemed a certain death, my mother was sent to a munitions factory in Lippstadt, Germany – a subcamp of Buchenwald. On March 29, 1945, the inmates began a forced death march toward Bergen-Belsen. On April 1, they were liberated by American soldiers.

My father escaped an execution-style death in either the Piotrkow Trybunalski or the Lodz ghetto (he was in both, and that is one detail I am unsure of) by bribing a German soldier with a watch and promising to return with more jewellery. Instead, he ran, hid in a park, and ultimately managed to get false papers; the wife of a Polish official took pity on my father and his blue, blue eyes. He ultimately escaped to, of all places, Germany, living out the rest of the war posing as a Catholic farm worker named Tadeusz, or Tadek – a name that stuck for the rest of his life. His parents, sister and little brother were deported to Treblinka. They were gassed on Oct. 20, 1942.

After the German defeat, my father went searching for his sister, asking freed Jewish women if they knew of her. That's how he met my mother. They married, had a daughter – classified as a Displaced Person – and arrived in Canada in 1951. In Toronto, they had two more daughters. We never had grandparents.

'I know that it happened'

A few days after our interview, I call Herzog. It is not a conversation I'm looking forward to, but I need to speak to him again. Our talk ranges widely, shifting from the past to contemporary subjects such as the environment.

"I'm more focused actually on what's happening now," he says. "I have people who are very educated who say even if we did the right thing now, mankind cannot be saved. I just want to state that to you because it has to do with an orientation that's forward-orientated rather than backward-looking. So if I haven't fully understood the injustices of the Holocaust, it was probably because I just didn't want to read about it. I've seen the pictures and I know that it happened, but I did not research it and attach guilt to myself."

What about those books, I ask him, the ones with those delousing theories? How did he come to read them?

There was one book published in Switzerland, he says, a gift years ago from a housepainter, now dead. "It presented a different view, which I know now is incorrect."

He says what he's been hearing about the Holocaust – from Jewish friends, including his ophthalmologist – is having an impact. "It's gradually been sinking in that this actually happened the way it's being described. But I'm the kind of person who, as I told you, would like to see how the numbers and the statistics were arrived at."

He says our discussion affected him. "You changed my point of view, to some extent."

Was it the trauma of living through the war at such a young age that had led to such a point of view?

"What has shaped me is growing up without parents who love me, more than anything else," he says. "That was what made me streetwise. Almost nothing else, not even the war, did that."

Months later, reconnection

Fred Herzog spent some time in Costa Rica this year, taking photographs. He returned in April, and I was able to talk with him yet again, after thinking about what he'd said for some time. Over the telephone, he repeatedly apologized.

"I have thought about the conversation a fair amount," he said. "I think the main thing, I was just unprepared for that question at that time. I was so overloaded with other issues that I could not have a level appreciation of your question."

I do not remind him that my question was simply whether he had experienced racism as a German in postwar Toronto. Also, I'm not looking for apologies. I believe he is sorry about what he said. What I want to know is why he said it.

"I was in a state of shock," he says. "When you brought it up, I reached into something that I no longer believe."

What did he once believe and where did that belief come from?

"The reason I gave you the wrong answer to the Holocaust. … To begin with, when I grew up in Germany after the war, nobody ever talked about the Holocaust. Nobody. Not my boss, not the other employees. Nobody there ever talked about the Holocaust. It was actually a seamless denial. And it was only after I had left Germany, I think there were some trials in West Germany where the Holocaust problem was driven home to Germans in such a way that they could no longer ignore it. … I remember reading right after the war that there were six million Jews killed and I talked to people about that and most people said they had no idea. And I think on the other hand some people must have had an idea that bad things were happening but simply put their head in the sand."

We discuss a couple of his works: one of my favourites, Black Man Pender – the dignified black gentleman holding the hand of his young daughter as they stroll through Vancouver's Chinatown with their cocker spaniel – and one of his, Paris Café. "The man in that picture looks somewhat disengaged, but I like the Santa Clauses and I like the price list of food," he says. "The whole atmosphere is somewhat in contradiction with the high-flying name Paris Café. And I like that kind of inherent contradiction in many of my pictures. Every picture, I've sometimes said, has a curve ball in it. They're not just pictures of pretty scenes. They're pictures that have a curve ball in them which makes you think."

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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