Fred Herzog, a pioneer of colour photography and beloved chronicler of life in mid-20th century Vancouver, died on Sept. 9 at the age of 88.
He was born Ulrich Herzog on Sept. 21, 1930, in Bad Friedrichshall, near Stuttgart in southern Germany.
Herzog hated school because he loathed having to sit still. But it was in school where at 14 he encountered the geography textbook that introduced him to his future home of Vancouver. Upon seeing a photo of the industrial waterfront, Herzog, a lover of ships and harbours, recalled thinking, “Gee, there’s a place that has mountains, it’s a nice city, it’s by the sea.”
Herzog was brought up middle class, but had a rough adolescence after his mother died in 1941 from paratyphoid. Five years later his father died; he had returned from the war exhausted and anxious.
Stuttgart suffered greatly from Allied bombing, and Herzog was left to the mercy of teachers and cold relatives. The absence of loving parents made him streetwise in a way that the war did not, he later said.
When Herzog’s Uncle Kurt died, he left his Zeiss Tessco camera to young Ulrich. He would later buy a Kodak Retina I, the model all his friends had, and take photos on hiking trips in the Alps. He enjoyed shooting landscapes, portraits and sports.
Herzog left Germany in 1952 — driven, he said, one-third by economic reasons and two-thirds by emotion. He made a two-week journey by ship to Montreal and then train to Toronto.
On his first day in this new city, cooling on the porch of a rooming house during a heat wave, he met another photographer who would become a mentor: Ferro Shelley Marincowitz, a South African infantryman-turned-medical photographer. The two became roommates and shared a darkroom. But overall, Herzog found Toronto, in his words, “seedy and unattractive, because I had not yet learned how to turn ugly scenes into beautiful pictures.”
Herzog departed for Vancouver by train a year later in 1953, when he was 22. A day after he arrived, he joined Union Steamships. He was now a part of the life on the water he had glimpsed in his textbook during his school days. Herzog was a fireman and oiler, and met crews of men from around the world who had also experienced the upheaval of war.
To them, he was “Fritz,” and later, “Fred.”
On the ships he met another larger-than-life figure who would influence his work. Gerhard Blume, originally of Berlin, was a former prisoner of war in Russia and self-styled intellectual who introduced Herzog to literature, politics, economics, science philosophy and religion. Authors like Gustave Flaubert and John Dos Passos would inspire Herzog to try and encapsulate modern life in his photography.
After three years as a seaman, photography brought Herzog ashore. In 1957, he was hired as a medical photographer by St. Paul’s Hospital, documenting surgeries, skin rashes, arthritic hands and the results of accidents.
In 1961, he was made head of the Photo/Cine Division of the Department of Biomedical Communications at the University of British Columbia, managing a staff that grew from seven to 60. In the late 1960s, he started teaching photography at UBC, as well as at Simon Fraser University.
The stable employment let Herzog afford a Norton motorcycle — which he would sometimes ride after lunch to the top of Mount Baker in Washington state and return in time for dinner — the ability to live in the West End and the leisure to spend evenings and weekends photographing the city.
What Herzog wasn’t interested in capturing was “new, clean, safe and honest neighbourhoods.”
“I loved the docks, the airport, the street, the people,” he said in Fred Herzog: Photographs. “I loved the city for its grittiness. I wasn’t a journalist. I did not have the chance to become that. But I photographed like I was a journalist the scene that was Vancouver.”
Herzog was very much plugged into the world of contemporary photography through books and magazines; he pored over many during his free time at sea in his early years in the city. He was an admirer of Walker Evans, August Sander, Eugène Atget and Robert Frank, whose famous book The Americans he discovered in the library in 1960. Frank, six years Herzog’s senior, died on the same day this week on the other side of the country in Nova Scotia.
In the quest to photograph this Vancouver — its streets and storefronts, hangouts and hideouts, plazas and parlours, backyards and work yards, voyeurs and loiterers — Herzog’s Excalibur was Kodachrome, a slide film known for its ability to capture rich colours.
“It was produced for the amateur market and the home slideshow,” writer and curator David Campany explains in the Herzog book Modern Color. “But it was good for capturing the things that interested Herzog: variations in fabric and skin, the palette of postwar consumables, bright glossy paintwork as it weathers into muted hues, the subtleties of urban wood and stone, and the atmospheric variations of a coastal climate.”
Kodachrome was, however, tricky to use. The film’s low speeds meant that it was insensitive to light, and required slow shutter speeds.
The fact that Herzog was able to capture spontaneity with an unspontaneous film proves his patient observation, what he called the “psychology of the hunter.”
In Canadian Art, author Timothy Taylor marvels at how Herzog, in his first year in Vancouver, was able to photograph the Marine Building. “It’s incredible to think that the composition and colour range of [this shot] was managed on Herzog’s first roll of colour film, the sun-yellowed wharf-side buildings laddering up into the mist that shrouds the city, and out of which emerges the crown jewel of the skyline at that time. It’s even more incredible to think that the Kodachrome film stock of the day was rated ISO 10 and that Herzog took the shot off the deck of a moving ship in what he estimates was a one-second window of opportunity to get the right framing.”
When photographing people, Herzog would often shoot from the hip with his Leica in an attempt to capture the candour of their body language: children in New Westminster scuffling in the dirt, a boy in Chinatown holding two live chickens, a woman exiting a corner store with an ice cream.
“When people see you, the picture’s gone for good,” he told the Globe and Mail in 2012. “You cannot repeat it. Once people have noticed you, you have to give up. That’s it. You blew it.”
While Kodachrome worked for Herzog, it made him an outlier.
“What’s miraculous about the whole thing is that when I started taking photographs in that style in 1957 — in colour — there was nobody that I could copy. Nobody,” Herzog told the Georgia Straight in 2011. Black and white then was the medium of “serious” documentary and fine art photographers; colour was reserved for advertising.
Herzog did not attain fame during what he considered his best years, between 1957 and 1963. He briefly considered photojournalism, but his family life would not allow him to be Robert Capa or James Nachtwey type. Herzog married Christel (died 2013), also born in Germany, who was an airline stewardess when they met. They parented two children, Ariane and Tyson.
Though Herzog probably wouldn’t have enjoyed working under editorial authority anyway, as he enjoyed making his own pictures of “the world the way it is,” disdaining the over-aestheticized images he saw in magazines like Life.
Herzog was included in a few group exhibitions in the 1960s, including at the National Gallery and the Vancouver Art Gallery. But his photos were mostly shown as slideshows to smaller audiences: in his own home, at camera clubs and, occasionally, in his classes.
Herzog did, however, receive accolades for his medical photography and films during his time at UBC. In 1987, he was awarded Canadian Medical Photographer of the Year. He has jokingly called his masterpiece a film called Breast Examination, “by far the most borrowed film in the library there.”
As Herzog aged, so did his Kodachrome slides, many of which faded, were scratched and marred by fungus.
But then came the new millennium, with digital scanners and inkjet printers. In the days Herzog shot Kodachrome, prints required mailing the film to Kodak, an expensive and complicated process even for small prints, let alone large ones for display.
Digital was the solution to restoring his images.
The technology paved the way for Herzog’s big moment in 2007, his solo exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, where an older city was surfaced in colour.
“It is not the ‘positive view’ preferred by civic officials; neither is it negative,” wrote David Campany in Modern Color. “It is the measured, attentive and ultimately generous view of a mindful observer. Few other bodies of photography in the history of the medium have come close to the richness of Herzog’s extended city portrait.”
“I don’t think we can have a photographer like Fred Herzog now,” wrote photographer Jeff Wall in Vancouver Magazine. “In order to have that affection, there has to be something to have it for… those objects of his affection no longer exist. Or if they do exist, they are just vestiges of what they were in 1957 or 1961, when he captured them perfectly.”
Campany adds that Vancouver “had been physically transformed in ways that were unconsciously cynical and dispiriting. The kinds of architecture, informal social spaces, and layer of material history to which Fred Herzog was drawn had been swept aside. In their place came a dense and homogeneous landscape determined by raw capital, and insensitive to its inhabitants.”
Herzog himself has said that the downtown is boring now, lacking the “disordered vitality” he was used to. But he admits that what might have made for good images could be bad for people. For one, Vancouver used to have a lot more smog, in part from burning garbage, that was good for pictures, but not residents.
Herzog’s emergence left the art world scratching their heads — who was this guy? He was an earlier pioneer of colour photography than more famous colour photographers like William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, who were still misunderstood when they began showing their work. What would the world have made of Herzog if he gained prominence during his prolific years?
The late recognition and attention also brought its own problems. In a Globe and Mail interview with Marsha Lederman in 2012, he referred to the “so-called Holocaust,” and expressed doubts about the scale of the horror — although not denying it.
It also means that scholarly analyses of his work are in short supply.
One by Tara Ng, an art history master’s graduate who wrote her 2016 thesis on Herzog, argues that his images offer a much-needed humanizing look at the working-class men who lived and frequented Vancouver’s city centre; the newspapers of the day painted them as the drunks, criminals and perverts of skid row. We see how these men might have been left behind by capitalism, rather than their condition as a result of “deficiencies in their characters,” writes Ng.
It may have taken until his 70s, but after his 2007 solo exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, its director told him he had become a rock star overnight.
“There’s a bit of truth to that,” Herzog told the Georgia Straight. “People came to it and broke into tears because they recognized a city they had forgotten existed.”
Read more: Photo Essays