Fred Herzog – History in Living Colour

Remember photo albums?  All those images bringing back memories of your family and friends and providing a reference for some event or location that had a special meaning for you.  The people in the shot, the clothes they wore, the background and the composition of the picture all contribute to preserving a moment in time.

For 50 years Fred Herzog has been using his camera to record urban street scenes in Vancouver and in other North American cities, focusing on regular people and their activities.  His photographs constitute a photo-journal of life in a city.  In his estimation he has taken over 80,000 such photographs.

What I like most about Herzog’s work is the craftsmanship in the composition of each picture, how he captures light and shade and the seemingly casual nature of the shot.  From an historical perspective his use of colour in the late 1950s and early 1960s was unique in itself and many critics consider him a pioneer in the development of colour photography as an art form.  Grant Arnold has noted that “Until the early 1970’s, colour photography was generally associated with advertising, and its lack of aesthetic distance from the world was seen as a constraint on its potential as art.”

Born in 1930 in Germany, he emigrated to Canadain 1952 and began photographing Vancouver the following year.  His work provides a context and an historical reference for that city.  A sample of his art will be on display at the Museum of Canadian Contemporary Art (Toronto) April 29 to June 4, 2011.  As well, a larger retrospective will be mounted at the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa) June 4 to September 5, 2011.

The first time I saw Herzog images was at the Vancouver Art Gallery about six years ago.  What hooked me on learning more about his work was the photograph entitled Robson Street, 1957 (reproduced above).  The image reminded me of a street photographer’s picture of my mother and her uncle walking with my brother, sister and I on 21st Street E in Saskatoon (see below).

While the Saskatoon shot was in black and white and only served the purpose of hustling my mother to purchase the picture, the Herzog photograph captures so much more – a time capsule of details recording the hustle and bustle of a busy downtown street.  I realized when I began to focus on the other images in the exhibition that there was a story in every picture.

The treasure trove of details of a Herzog composition encourages you to get lost for a moment in the scene and to create your own storyline from a similar situation or cast of characters from your past.  That is what I find so special about Herzog’s photographs – they are so easy to relate to.

It’s always interesting to me how the work of one artist will put me in mind of the work of another with the result that I end up with a greater appreciation for both.  For example, last year I encountered for the first time the work of the American sculptor George Segal.   The piece that caught my attention was a bronze installation entitled Depression Breadline and it was cast in 1991 (see below).

When I saw the Segal sculpture what struck me was his handling of the men’s clothing and their posture and this brought to mind two Herzog images, Old Man Main (1959) and Newspaper Readers (1961) see below.  One artist has used bronze to tell a story by capturing a feeling and a moment in time while the other artist has used colour, light and shadows.

With a nod to the upcoming federal election I am hoping that Fred Herzog will soon be able to update his 1962 photograph, John Diefenbaker (see below), with one of Harper’s campaign office being closed forever – just a thought!!

If you get a chance to see either the Toronto or the Ottawa exhibition let me know what your reaction is.  Keep your eye out for a new publication in the Fall – Fred Herzog Photographs with articles by Claudia Gochmann, Sarah Milroy, Jeff Wall and Douglas Coupland.


About George

My long-time interest in Canadian and international contemporary art has led me to write and reflect on the artists I've met, the exhibitions that I've seen and the catalogues that I've read (I've been told I'm the only person that actually reads exhibition catalogues cover to cover). My interest began in the mid-1960's when I was searching for easy credits and I stumbled upon "Art Appreciation 101", and the rest, as they say, is history...
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2 Responses to Fred Herzog – History in Living Colour

  1. G Hoskins says:

    Hi George, Most enjoyable. It’s just so much easier for me to relate to than the extremly esoteric “It Is What It Is” stuff. The photo of your mother & co goes beyond art and really speaks to what a decent person she was. She is so beautifully and properly dressed and you and Tom both turned out neat as a pin. I can’t remember where you lived but I know it was on the other side of the river, quite a hike not to mention a round trip. So this edition of your blog is the best yet for me. Herzog is great and thanks for the heads up re: his next exhibits. My take on this edition, the world needs more Irene’s. My best to you, Geo P.S. I won’t tell anybody that you don’t like Harper.

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