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Features / December 12, 2012

The Way Things Are: Fred Herzog’s Art of Observation

A feature article from the Winter 2013 issue of Canadian Art

At 82 years of age, photographer Fred Herzog doesn’t move quite as quickly as he used to. But then, few people ever did. In his younger days, Herzog was the kind of guy who’d jump on his Norton motorcycle after lunch and ride back roads to the top of Mount Baker, 180 kilometres south in Washington state, then motor home in time for supper. “Not always at the speed limit,” he says now, with a sly smile.

When he wasn’t making a literal blur across the landscape—and when he wasn’t working full time as a medical photographer at the University of British Columbia (UBC) or raising his family—he shot pictures on the streets. And rather a lot of pictures, we now know, as a result of a series of high-profile solo shows in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, New York and Berlin over the course of just the past five years. Asked to estimate the total number of pictures he’s taken in his life, Herzog will admit to more than 85,000. Of course, those are only the ones he’s kept.

“I suppose I’m a bit of a workaholic,” he says, with a self-deprecating chuckling and a glint of mischief in his eyes. But then, immediately, he’s back to scanning the world around him. “Here,” he says, voice low. “Let’s look up this alley. There are often things here.”

We’re in Strathcona, Vancouver’s oldest residential neighbourhood, just east of the downtown core. I’m observing a crucial part of the Herzog methodology, what his photographer friend Christos Dikeakos describes as his “Socratic walks”: long ambles through the city, camera in hand, by which an inquiry into the world is facilitated. Strathcona might be thought of as Herzog’s most fertile ground, though that runs the risk of overlooking the fact that he’s walked and shot pictures in almost 40 countries around the world and more cities than he can name. It’s a favourite, in any case, a place where he has stalked the streets and alleys for more than 55 years, returning so often that if you’re lucky enough to accompany him and watch him working, you’ll occasionally catch Herzog wondering aloud as he frames a shot whether he might possibly have taken the same picture before. Then he’ll shrug and take it anyway.

Now, he crouches a little, squinting, the small Lumix digital with the Leica lens held almost unconsciously at his hip, like an organic extension of his fingertips. “You see?” he says. “You could do something with that house. And the big pile of superfluous furniture! Yes.… I’m going to take that picture.”

Then he looks eastward to the end of the alley, to the bank of trees there and the dropping sun beyond. He gauges light. He fingers the camera’s manual controls, then swivels and holds the Lumix out at arm’s length, aiming over the fence at a picaresque pile of mattresses and spent sofa cushions stacked in the furrowed backyard, a distressed house beyond, bleached-out boards and peeling asphalt roof shingles. No human form present, but everywhere the fingerprints of man, the hand of humanity, the city alive and breathing, offering up its endless content.

The shutter winks, once. The camera emits a tone. Herzog straightens with a half smile and off he goes. “That might be a picture,” he muses, walking again. “Maybe not a great one. But it’s a picture. And I don’t want to go home empty-handed.”

I’m still looking at the house. Herzog is now 10 metres down the alley. There’s a building around the corner that used to be a convenience store. He wants to show me something there: faded, silvering images of Coke bottles printed onto glass panels above the building’s entrance. He’s been shooting them for decades—30 years at least, he guesses. Each time he returns, they’ve faded a little more, leaching a bit of themselves into the Strathcona air.

When I catch up to him, Herzog is in place already, lens trained upward.

“You see?” he says. “Degraded, but never so much that they don’t have value.”

I watch over his shoulder as another image is made. I’ve never noticed the Coke bottles previously. But now, as the light deepens in tone, as the shadows begin to pool, I know exactly what he means.

Fred Herzog <em>Boys on Shed</em> 1962 Courtesy Equinox Gallery Fred Herzog Boys on Shed 1962 Courtesy Equinox Gallery

Thirty years ago, when the Coke-bottle panels were newer and Fred Herzog himself was already 52 years old, this article wouldn’t have been written. Even a dozen years ago, when he was 70 and retired from his job at UBC, when his picture count would have been pushing toward that 85,000 mark, Herzog’s press coverage was light. The first time I remember hearing about his work was in 2001, when he was included in “Vancouver Collects—Sun Pictures to Photoconceptualism: Photography from Local Collections,” a group show at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG). And the first time I remember hearing people outside art circles talking about his work was in 2007, when the VAG organized and presented the solo show “Fred Herzog: Vancouver Photographs.”

As an artistic phenomenon in photography, Herzog is a recent development. And that story—inexplicable on one level, as the photos in question have been around for a long time—is partly about snobbery and partly about technology. Speaking to the latter, Herzog’s early use of Kodachrome colour film presented major challenges. The film was hi-res and lifelike, offering brilliant colours with broad tonal range. But it was also expensive to print, since the process involved sending the film to Kodak. Since Herzog couldn’t afford that, he had slides made, which more or less denied him access to galleries.

Kodachrome did offer a silver lining, however. For the expense, it came with great shelf life. So when laser printing finally came along, sophisticated and affordable enough to faithfully print the images as Herzog remembered taking them, the doors to the galleries began to open. In that sense, Herzog’s film choice was highly fortuitous. As Equinox Gallery owner and early Herzog champion Andy Sylvester now observes, touring me around the extensive solo show Equinox hosted this past spring, “If he’d been shooting Ektachrome, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Few would dispute that the conversation about Fred Herzog is now well underway. Judging from the red-dot stickers, the Equinox show sold extremely well. And following up on the Berlin show, Herzog will hang with a prestigious group in the London show “Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour,” hosted by the Positive View Foundation. That show honours 15 photographers “whose commitment to expression in colour was—or is—wholehearted and highly sophisticated, and which measured up to Cartier-Bresson’s essential requirement that content and form were in perfect balance.”

The citation of Henri Cartier-Bresson is notable here, and goes some ways toward illustrating the snobbery that previously played a role in keeping Herzog from public attention. As arbitrary as it now seems to contemporary eyes, colour simply wasn’t the “serious” photographic norm in the 1950s and ’60s. It was associated with commercial design and advertising, and no less a luminary than Cartier-Bresson himself reinforced the prejudice in a famously scathing judgment: “A colour photograph reproduced in a magazine or semi-luxury edition sometimes gives the impression of an anatomical dissection which has been badly bungled.”

That view will now seem anachronistic to many, among the public but even in art-photography circles. We live in the era of Jeff Wall, after all, whose backlit Cibachrome photos co-opt commercial display techniques as part of their essential expression. But it’s also a celebrated aspect of Herzog’s work that more than 50 years ago he brought a steady, wry, but non-judgmental eye to the investigation of commercialism. Pictures like 2nd Hand Store Boy and Magazine Man (both 1959) depict characters at the centre of tableaux of consumable objects: tools and watches and clocks in the first case, magazines and books in the second. Not only is brilliant colour the right palette for suggesting the array and scope of these offerings, it’s the right language with which to communicate the wide-ranging fascinations of the display. It’s the right language, in other words, with which to communicate what would have been experienced by those encountering the display at the time of the image’s capture.

Fred Herzog <em>Hub & Lux</em> 1958 Courtesy Equinox Gallery Fred Herzog Hub & Lux 1958 Courtesy Equinox Gallery

It may well be that in this era we’re too aware of what we contemptuously refer to as “consumerism” to recall or admit to its occasional charms and pleasures in anything but an ironic way. But we openly thrill to these photographic recollections, so crisply articulated, of a time when the pieties of Adbusters and Naomi Klein had not yet chased away the carnal pleasures of browsing, shunting them into the cultural closet. This isn’t nostalgia we feel looking at the odd assortment of trinkets and toys on display in A 1 Western (1961) or even at the thicket of commercial neon in Hub & Lux (1958). It’s a collective memory of a time before what Dikeakos refers to as “cosmopolitan aloneness.” And it’s something only colour could have achieved.

Herzog doesn’t claim to have thought these things through in a calculated way. Strolling the Equinox show, he tells me he was aware of Kodachrome’s archival potential, but chose the film primarily because it had the most vivid reproductions. That choice was first made in 1953, only a year after he emigrated from Germany. And the detail of the timing, one comes to suspect while looking at the pictures, is crucial: at the moment of his discovery of this world of content and the colour medium in which he felt it was best reflected, Herzog was a very recent immigrant. Despite his era-typical reluctance to discuss personal history (or complain in any way about life as it has unfolded), it becomes hard, looking at those early pictures, not to make the connection between his in-between status as a citizen and the essential insights of the remarkable body of work he was just then starting to assemble.

With that in mind, we need to look, however briefly, at the circumstances that gave rise to his un-rootedness. Herzog was born in Bad Friedrichshall, Germany, in 1930. He lost both his parents during the war period: his mother to a sudden case of paratyphoid in 1941, and his father to cancer in 1946. As a teenager, Herzog was orphaned in a country that had been destroyed. Yet, postwar, things got only worse. There were millions of people being resettled in what was Western Germany at the time. Jobs were scarce. And then there was the dawning, existential shock as German civilians learned the full extent of what had happened under the Nazis. Herzog recalls his first awakening in this regard. It was two days after VE Day, in May 1945, and he saw a poster in a public square—he remembers it distinctly enough to recall that it was printed on pink paper—informing the populace that six million Jews were missing and thought to have been killed in concentration camps during the war.

At 15, Herzog’s understanding of the Holocaust was limited. “But it accumulated bit by bit,” he says. By 1953, a year after he’d immigrated to Canada and moved from Toronto to Vancouver, Herzog had become a voracious reader of literature and history. He’d met a fellow German émigré, who, like Herzog, worked the Canadian Pacific Railway steamships that sailed the coastal waters. The man was a virulent anti-fascist. “He showed me how false it all was,” Herzog remembers. At the same time, he introduced the young Herzog to world literature: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, Stendhal, John Dos Passos and, notably, the German novelist Wolfgang Koeppen, a fierce critic of German complacency, whose novel Death in Rome depicts former Nazis thriving postwar in the Eternal City.

“What Koeppen taught me,” Herzog says now, “was that we’d been had in Germany.”

“I think he left Germany disgusted,” says Jack Rootman, a longtime friend. An orbital surgeon who met Herzog when they were both at UBC, Rootman is also an avid painter and has accompanied Herzog on his photo walks countless times over the decades. Rootman attributes to Herzog’s wartime and postwar experiences the impulse in the adult to inquire, to investigate, to try to see through to the truth. “He lived in and observed a society that was darker than it appeared to be,” Rootman says. “And he came to a society where he wanted to be sure it was as bright as it appeared to be.”

Herzog’s particular history informed a particular kind of curiosity, a particular will to see things as they are. And while that might have driven the choice to shoot in colour—the best palette and language for articulating Herzog’s experience of his new world—it is even more directly readable in the photographs themselves, where we see how this inquiry manifested itself in a signature style and technique.

Fred Herzog <em>Orange Cars Powell</em> 1973 Courtesy Equinox Gallery Fred Herzog Orange Cars Powell 1973 Courtesy Equinox Gallery

Above all else, a typical Herzog photo lacks artifice. Herzog, in search of a truthfulness, a momentary, telling realness, does not intrude much from his side of the camera. There are exceptions, including a shot that incorporates the photographer’s shadow, and, most obviously, a self-portrait taken in 1961. The eight subjects of Boys on Shed (1962), too, are aware enough of the lens to line themselves up politely. But in the vast main, Herzog’s work captures subjects prior to the possibility of a pose. They are caught in action. They pass through the field of the lens on routes of their own choosing, enacting an autonomy that (the more Herzog you look at) seems central among the photographer’s observations. Black Man Pender (1958) is on a mission of his own devising, perhaps broadly hinted at by the elegance of his attire, the pretty blue of his daughter’s coat and even the straining of his cocker spaniel on its lead. Likewise, Shopper (1962)—his hat and clothes the more worn, his gaze down at the book in his hands the more perplexed, the dirt under his fingernails suggesting a personal universe of entirely its own dimensions. In either case, the psychological underpinnings—the needs, cares and desires—may only be probed in a speculative way. But it’s Herzog’s inquiry, his frank and fully engaged curiosity for the truth, that invites the speculation.

Even without people in the frame, this holds true. It’s incredible to think that the composition and colour range of CPR Pier & Marine Building (1953) 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. But what is truly indelible about the image is neither of these technical accomplishments. It’s the sense of a developing narrative within and surrounding the inanimate objects in the frame. Herzog is present in the picture, but only as a potential actor on the stage that is the picture’s subject. The city, observed as the site of a seaman’s arrival, is central, teeming in its mantle of low-lying mist, with its own possibilities and obstacles, hopes and regrets.

That essential honesty leads the viewer toward a deeper recognition both of the event unfolding and some broader, reaching truth about its context. It facilitates “decisive moments” of a uniquely Herzogian variety. Where Cartier-Bresson, who coined the term in his famous 1952 book, seemed to capture macro-universes in moments of telling microbalance, Herzog inclines us toward more intimate and empathetic readings. A distance is closed between viewer and subject in such photographs as Mom’s Shoes (1969), in which a small girl pushes her toy pram along a sidewalk in front of a battered fence with seemingly as-battered clothes hanging to dry beyond. Foot of Main (1968) achieves the same: here, a young couple holding hands is about to step off the curb and into the street—that is, into their own unfolding universe of possibilities and obstacles, hopes and regrets—as the sun glows gold off a derelict building to the west, and a distressed and peeling advertisement for a discount store hangs with hovering insistency overhead.

There is a technical way of understanding how this is done. Rootman describes what he considers to be Herzog’s way of combining the construction and encountering of art: “What I’ve always noted about Fred,” he tells me, “is his ability to see in the environment a construction, but then wait for something to happen in that. It’s both distinctly patient and well thought out.”

It’s also the product of honed proficiency. Herzog’s time spent with the precision of medical photography is crucially in play. In the days of fully manual cameras and slow film, he had the ability to see the construction and either wait or act instantaneously to execute, as required. “He really has that quickness,” Dikeakos says. “He has the confidence, the ability, to identify and choose the picture, but then be quick.”

Fred Herzog in Vancouver, September 2012 / photo Hubert Kang Fred Herzog in Vancouver, September 2012 / photo Hubert Kang

What is intimate in these shots, then, is the product of an intuitive and spontaneous approach, something organic to the photographer as a person, and linked back to the inquiring mind and eye that Herzog inherited from his own émigré’s history. It is a variety of fellow feeling that Herzog displays in these depictions of the people and places among which he has found himself, and in which he finds himself settling. There is humour in the work, even irony, as in Eisie and Dick (1974), where a picture of Eisenhower and Nixon is displayed in a store window next to a sign advertising hot dogs at 35 cents each. But there is no sarcasm, no cynicism. Herzog identifies on some human level with the situation and citizenry of his new world, with the environment toward which his curiosity is directed and the lens of his camera is now pointed.

Once read, this quality appears in almost every Herzog photograph, including most of the ones mentioned previously. There is compassion and identification in this work, in the depiction of children, workers, shoppers and flâneurs alike. When Herzog observes an old man by the sea (Waterfront Flaneur, 1959), we see the man for the quiet dignity he possesses, for the civility of his attire, which Herzog also appreciates. We see in him the memories that the boats in the misty harbour seem so certainly to have provoked at the decisive human moment of the shutter’s movement.

Dikeakos speaks of this quality in terms of a mystery, something concealed within these pictures that draws us inexorably inward, not into ourselves, but into empathetic contact with the experience of another. “He’s not showing us everything,” he tells me. “There are things left out for us to complete, and I think that’s why these pictures are so compelling.”

That they have proven compelling is now beyond dispute. Herzog’s inclusion in the Positive View Foundation show acknowledges that his work is among the most important in photography—black and white or colour—that exists from the 20th and 21st centuries. The technical hurdles to displaying the work are gone. The snobbery about colour has dissipated. And fame has predictably followed, and with it press coverage and not a few irritations for a man who has spent so many decades following his own line of inquiry without much external review. Yes, he always understood his work to have value. (“You don’t take pictures and store them in your basement for 50 years without belief in the work,” Dikeakos points out.) Yet one senses that he finds the attention a puzzle at times.

Sylvester described for me the moment when Herzog first saw the Equinox Project Space hung with 130 examples of his work—the biggest show mounted so far. “He was quiet for a long time. Then he slowly pulled out his camera and started taking pictures.”

“People say to me, ‘Aren’t you sorry that you didn’t have the success earlier?’” Herzog muses, standing in that same space, surrounded by all that work. “I tell them, ‘No. I’m glad it didn’t come earlier, because now I’m public property.’”

In May 2012, Herzog arguably found that out the hard way, when the Globe and Mail ran a profile of the photographer that quoted him referring to those seminal and shaping events of his wartime childhood, including a reference to the “so-called” Holocaust. While the phrase’s first definition would be “commonly called,” the article queried the possibility that Herzog had used it in its second, more negative sense, meaning “allegedly true.” I never told Herzog that my own mother, a half-Jewish German citizen (or Mischling, as they were designated), was a Holocaust survivor. But when I asked him about his use of the phrase, I listened to his explanation with the ears of someone who has heard Holocaust stories drawn directly from the experience of a victim. The degree to which Herzog and his entire photographic project were shaped by the war, combined with the specific stories he told of learning the truth in its aftermath, removed any doubt from my mind. He may have used the phrase inelegantly. He may have used it irritably at the prospect of having to discuss this history again. But he used the phrase in the sense of its first definition.

Fred Herzog <em>Main Barber</em> 1968 Courtesy Equinox Gallery Fred Herzog Main Barber 1968 Courtesy Equinox Gallery

“Just look at the work,” Herzog’s old friend Rootman tells me. “Go look at those pictures. Tell me what you think of this man. If you didn’t know anything else about him and I gave you a book of his pictures, you would see that the work expresses enormous humanity.”

I can think of dozens of shots that would illustrate the point. But I’m drawn to one in particular, because Herzog has told me it is one of his favourites. It’s called Main Barber (1968), shot from the inside of a somewhat dilapidated establishment, with cracked plaster walls and faded, dog-eared pictures of different hairstyles. There’s an ancient cash register, a Bank of Montreal calendar and a small table with magazines laid out neatly. Outside, a man walks past, and the viewer can ponder whether he’s just had a cut or if he’s yet another person passing by.

When Herzog and I look at the picture together, I can see him carried back to the moment of its capture. After a few seconds of thought, he says, “You see there is a certain style here in the way the magazines are laid out. The light bulb is 100 years old. The clock is 200 years old. But these pictures and magazines, they make an artistic collage that if you wanted to make it, you could not. And a certain dignity. There’s dignity in a small enterprise.”

After shooting the Coke bottles in Strathcona it’s getting cold, but Herzog still has some shots left to take. We walk east on Pender, then south on Hawks past the little wooden houses there, some tidily painted with neat gardens and patio furniture, others looking at bit more ad hoc, even neglected. Herzog stops in front of one of the latter, instinctively, intuitively. I can tell he’s seen something.

“Untrained people make the best yard arrangements,” he says. “You see the ‘Keep Out’ sign and the bottles there, and then the bike. And the cat! Oh my, that cat makes a nice shadow.”

He’s crouching now. He’s smiling, adjusting his position, strengthening the composition by shuffling to one side. He knows he’s got a good one.

“And the light,” he says, to no one in particular. He is alone with the image now. “The light is really getting good.”

It’s a deep light, a penetrating light. The sky is intensely blue. The trees radiate their green. The sun is amber, dropping steadily in the sky. The shutter whirs.

Then he moves on. More shots. A carriage house. A boat on a trailer in someone’s driveway, two young children in the window high overhead, waving and smiling. And then another window with little flags in a jar set on a linen doily. The cat is following Herzog, its long shadow slinking along the fence line beside him. Fred Herzog in Strathcona in a Herzog light, walking with a cat and a camera through Herzog’s world.


This is a feature article from the Winter 2013 issue of Canadian Art.

Timothy Taylor

Timothy Taylor is a Canadian novelist, journalist and creative writing professor. His books include Stanley Park and The Blue Light Project.