Don’t Take My Kodachrome Away — A Review of Fred Herzog: Modern Color
One of the things that strikes a viewer almost immediately when presented with an array of Fred Herzog’s photographs is the pop of “Kodachrome red” that appears in almost every image. Whether in the tights of a young girl and the nearby skirt of an older woman in Red Stockings (1961), or in the signage of Empty Barber Shop (1966), or in a painted billboard for Buckingham cigarettes in Elysium Cleaners (1958), Herzog includes the hue in the large majority of his photographs. “Kodachrome red, available only in slides, was his muse,” writer and critic Sarah Milroy has said, “and many of his best works are anchored in this primary hue.”
In the new book, Fred Herzog: Modern Color, the photographer’s masterful use of colour is on full display. A quintessential mid-20th-century street photographer, Herzog captures daylit streets crammed with shop signs and people. At night, the neon lights of a gloriously gaudy Vancouver float in the darkness like fireflies in pitch. Open lots with wrecked and decaying automobiles sit cheek by jowl with down-at-heel businesses on forgotten street corners. Industrial sites acquire strange beauty in their very ugliness — informed by the knowledge that they, too, are relics of an age before towering skyscrapers and condo canyons.
Born in Germany in 1930, Herzog came to Canada in 1952, arriving in Montreal by ship before boarding a train to Toronto. He had taken up photography as a teen in Germany, and continued to take pictures while holding down a variety of jobs in Canada, including work on a cargo ship. Eventually he found his way to Vancouver, where he was a medical photographer by day, and a street photographer by night.
Photographing with his Leica 35 mm camera, Herzog began in black-and-white. Today, however, he has become so closely associated with colour that coming across one of his black-and-white images is as disorienting as stumbling across a Walker Evans photograph in colour. The dozen or so black-and-white Herzog images included in the book — including Toronto, Centre Island (1952) and Man in Bookshop (1958) — feature the same pared-down aesthetic and reportage as his colour work, although it is evident that he “saw” more clearly in Kodachrome.
There have been many comparisons between Herzog and photographers such as Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Eugène Atget, Helen Levitt and Henri Cartier-Bresson. However, there is evidence to suggest that, while he was an admirer of Evans, Herzog was not particularly interested in aping anyone, but simply photographed what caught his eye.
In fact, as David Campany suggests in his essay, “Of Time and Place,” Herzog may have been most influenced by works of literature that abounded in “vivid character sketches and powerful vignettes of the social and economic churn of modern life. He wondered if there could be a photographic equivalent to this...”
The photographs included in the book are a delight, featuring a thoughtful selection from a body of work that numbers more than 100,000 images. In addition to well-known pictures such as Man with a Bandage (1968) and Flaneur, Granville (1960), the book also features a number of outstanding, but perhaps lesser-known, images from Herzog’s travels to countries such as Guatemala and Malaysia. It is also a strikingly beautiful book, the meticulously reproduced plates all full-page or larger. For anyone with an interest in street photography — particularly the less-conventional colour variety — this is definitely a must-have.
One of the most touching and thought-provoking things about Herzog’s photographs is his elegiac depiction of a lost era. The people he has captured appear innocent of the qualities we associate with today’s big cities. The streetscapes are either gently amusing or sweetly sad. A black man in his Sunday best walks down a late-afternoon street, hand-in-hand with a little girl in Black Man, Pender (1958). A well-dressed but melancholy young woman gazes through the window of a shabby storefront in Bargain Shop (1962). This is what my city was once like, the images seem to say. This is the essence of the city I love.
In his essay “Vancouver Appearing and Not Appearing in Fred Herzog’s Photographs,” Canadian photographer Jeff Wall writes, “I don’t think we can have a photographer like Fred Herzog [in Vancouver] now. . . . [The] problem is that 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.”
One of the best descriptions of Herzog’s life and work may come from author-journalist Hans-Michæl Kœtzle. In his essay, “‘I wanted to show the world the way it is’: Remarks on the Color Photography Oeuvre of the Canadian Fred Herzog,” he writes, “Herzog is a documentarian with personal concerns, a chronicler with artistic demands, a daily flâneur on the search for a world in equilibrium.”
Fred Herzog: Modern Color, with essays by David Campany, Hans-Michæl Kœtzle and Jeff Wall, was published by Hatje Cantz Verlag and Vancouver’s Equinox Gallery in 2017, and is available from the NGC Boutique.