Fred Herzog: Street Photography

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Fred Herzog, Flâneur, Granville (1960), ink jet print, 76.4 x 50.2 cm. CMCP Collection, NGC

Fred Herzog figures he has taken hundreds of thousands of photographs in over 40 countries, and more cities than he can name. At the age of 82, he is still driven to capture the essence of back alleys, out-of-the-way or everyday hangouts, window displays and people. 

“I am still making photographs at least once a week, weather permitting,” he says from his home in Vancouver. “I have to walk to survive. On these walks, I usually carry a camera, and still find many scenes that meet my interests and standards.”

Those standards have remained unwaveringly high in a career spanning 60 years. Born in Germany, Herzog came to Vancouver in 1953, and began snapping pictures of street life while making his living as a medical photographer and art instructor at Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia. Ever on the lookout for unexpected events, un-posed subjects and spontaneous gestures, Herzog was particularly drawn to the working class and the seamy side of city life.

Fred Herzog: Street Photography at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum to 28 April, captures this fascination. Organized by the National Gallery of Canada, the approximately 30 photographs in the exhibition depict Vancouver, Victoria, San Francisco, and Banff during the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. While so-called “serious” photographers of the time shot exclusively in black and white, Herzog chose the punchy, saturated tones of Kodachrome slide film to capture his subjects.

“He really was a pioneer, in the sense that he was very interested in colour photography at a time when a lot of people weren’t practicing colour photography,” says Andrea Kunard, Assistant Curator of the contemporary photography collection at the National Gallery. “In the sixties, photography was kind of ‘out there.’ There was this gradual acceptance of photography as an art form, but it really wasn’t something that was fully recognized as such. So anybody doing photography was kind of suspect in the art world. Colour would have been really taboo, for the most part.”

“It did not bother me, ever, that nobody else shared the same point of view,” Herzog says. “I was, however, confident that sometime in the distant future my photographs would be appreciated. It is my luck that I was still alive when that happened in 2007 at age 76.”

Kunard says Herzog’s contribution to photography goes beyond nostalgia. “It is a matter of looking at his use of colour, how he constructed his photographs, his compositions, his clashes of colour. It’s about somebody who had a very good eye for photography.” 

As an immigrant, Herzog says photography helped him understand and explore his new country. “Because I arrived from another part of the world, I used my photography to digest what I saw in Canada, which appeared to me as exotic. My subjects included people, streets, and store displays—especially second-hand stores, which I saw as microcosms of American and Canadian culture. In the 1950s and 1960s, the goods in these stores were simple tools: musical instruments, fishing gear, logging boots, and watches. Nowadays, the goods on display are electronic or fashion oriented.”

It is due to Herzog’s use of colour that we have such a definitive photographic record, not only of the cities, people and places that so fascinated him, but of the rich contrasting colours that defined his subject matter. 

Calgary is the 2nd stop for Fred Herzog: Street Photography. The exhibition opened at the National Gallery of Canada in 2011, before moving to the Glenbow Museum.

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