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Fred Herzog: Retro Refresh

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Equinox Gallery, art dealer Andy Sylvester pulled out all the stops and opened a 12,000-square-foot project space that is virtually unique in Canada. The huge industrial reno—he searched for the right building for two years—has proven so successful that “build it and they will come” already suits it as a motto.

“Fred Herzog: A Retrospective,” Sylvester’s first exhibition in the project space, opened on January 28: of late, it has been drawing more than 500 people every Saturday and its closing date has been extended twice. (“That’s the first time I’ve done that in 30 years,” Sylvester says.) The show of 130 black-and-white and colour photographs by the 82-year-old photographer, who recently was announced as one of three finalists for the $50,000 Scotiabank Photography Award, will close on April 28.

Given Herzog’s importance to colour photography and his history with Equinox Gallery, which has played a critical role in bringing his pioneering work out of the shadows to international acclaim, his work seems a fitting choice for the debut of this major new project.

Herzog’s unusual story is by now becoming well known. One of the earliest photographers to shoot almost exclusively in colour, Herzog worked with Kodachrome slide film and was unable, because of the prohibitive cost, to make prints; his photographs were visible solely as slide projections. Although people in the Vancouver art world knew him, and he sometimes gave slide presentations, his work only began to become widely known five years ago, when Equinox and the Vancouver Art Gallery held simultaneous exhibitions in 2007. The VAG show, when he was 77, was Herzog’s first major retrospective, although he had made his first professional appearance there in 1966 in a group show and was part of its “Vancouver Collects,” curated by Roy Arden, in 2001. Herzog’s other occasional inclusions in group shows included three at Presentation House: two curated by Helga Pakasaar, “In Transition: Postwar Photography in Vancouver” in 1986 and “The Just Past of Photography” in 1994, and one curated by Bill Jeffries, “Unfinished Business: Vancouver Street Photographs, 1955 to 1985,” in 2003.

The advent of digital technology gave Herzog an affordable means by which to scan and print his slides, with the help of technicians whom he sits beside to make colour corrections and adjustments. “When he prints he wants Kodachrome colour,” Sylvester says. “He doesn’t want that blue car out there, he wants that blue car taken by Kodachrome, which he was obsessed with.” The photographer and the dealer began working together seriously in 2005. Sylvester says it was artist and photographer Christos Dikeakos who urged him to find a way to make Herzog’s work better known.

The Equinox Project Space retrospective is comparable to the VAG’s in terms of size and scope. “I want to do shows, not just a gallery,” says Sylvester, who can perform as a curator in his project space and not just as a dealer. He had intended to show all 165 photographs that Herzog has printed in his 60-year career, but ran out of room with 35 to go. Even so, the former home of Finning Tractor’s paint and repair shops on Great Northern Way is vast. The building, which opened originally in 1964, makes a stunning gallery, with an exposed 25-foot-high ceiling, clerestory windows, a great glass-and-metal grid of an overhead door, which is 23 feet tall, and 10-foot-high white walls on which to hang the art. Across the back is a 16-by-70-foot feature display wall. Should Sylvester ever need it (and who’s to say he won’t) there is a working five-ton crane mounted in the ceiling: a bonus.

If the spectator’s size might seem puny in relation to the industrial architecture, however, the renovation avoids making viewers feel overwhelmed by it, with the result that an intimate experience of looking closely at photographs, which by Dusseldorf school standards are not overly large, can be had here. This, of course, was part of the plan. “I wanted the white walls to be the scale of the pictures,” Sylvester says, “not 20 feet high.”

A group of 14 black-and-white photographs, which begins this show, represents Herzog’s work when he immigrated to Canada from Germany in 1952, and moved to Vancouver a year later. One of the earliest of these, taken of a picnic on the Toronto Islands with the city visible in the background, bears a strong compositional resemblance to Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, while pictures taken a year later bear the gritty hallmarks of the street photography that quickly became his métier. One of his touchstones later on was Robert Frank’s The Americans (1959). The colour work began in earnest in Vancouver in 1953. Perhaps Vancouver’s overcast skies, which so enhance the colour recorded on film, the mists and fogs, and the quality of the light made colour photography seem the best way to portray this city on the Pacific Ocean, which Herzog was just beginning to get the feel of.

“Fred’s work is all about walking, because he was walking through Vancouver every waking hour that he could, taking pictures,” says Sylvester, describing a European flâneur who was sussing out not only a new city but also a new country, with an alert attention attuned to difference, contradiction and the social, political and economic landscape. “It was very much about an immigrant experience,” says Sylvester. “Trying to figure out a new place.”

That Herzog found himself in a city so often described, defined, constructed and enriched by colour might at first seem like so much good luck, like always being in the right place at the right time. But picture after sumptuous picture demonstrates that no one’s luck is that good. Jeff Wall attributes it to Herzog’s “eye and skill” in his essay “Vancouver Appearing and Not Appearing in Fred Herzog’s Photographs,” in the book Fred Herzog: Photographs (2011). Some tribute must be paid to the colour chemistry of Kodachrome film and Herzog’s affinity for it. It’s also not hard to believe that Herzog sees the world differently than most people, that he is hypersensitive to colour and always on the lookout for its effects, that he composes with colour and builds a picture with it in ways most often attributed to painters.

After all, the mechanical part of taking a photograph is the easiest. In the book cited above, Claudia Gochmann points out that colour photography should be considered “not merely as black and white photography plus colour, but a unique medium.” This is the medium that Herzog practices. For this, she writes, “Herzog can be considered a pioneer in the development of colour photography as an art form.” He was doing it before just about everybody—Helen Levitt, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore—except Saul Leiter, who was taking colour photographs on the streets of New York as early as the late 1940s. As with Herzog, acclaim for Leiter’s important contributions came late.

Sylvester has helped Herzog to edit and print his work, to place it in public collections and to disseminate it to private collectors and a wide audience, here and abroad. The fact that Herzog could sustain a career for so long without these kinds of encouragements impresses him. “What’s always surprising to me,” Sylvester says, “is that he kept going.” So it pleases the dealer that he has had to extend the closing of Herzog’s show two times.

“That’s the advantage of having the project space,” Sylvester says. The rules are different. You don’t program it like a gallery.” Next up will be an exhibition of collage by Canadian artists. And after that?

“I have lots of ideas,” Sylvester says.

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