“When you have seen the city to a point when you think you have done it all, the horizon will suddenly sustain a crack and a new cycle of hitherto unseen phenomena will begin to form shadows on your film.” – Fred Herzog
Having a real passion for something is rare; the kind of passion where you can’t think about anything else and all of your spare resources go into it. We, as photographers, as artists, like to think we have that passion. We put on that face in front of our friends and family. We are the ones who always have the camera in our hands, who will shoot everything from our latest meal to a snail we find on the sidewalk in front of our house. It feels like we live, eat, and breathe waiting for our next photograph. How many of us, however, would continue to do what we do, for decades, with no one paying the slightest bit of attention? If photos you put up on Facebook or Flickr or Instagram were left uncommented on, or if every one of your blog posts went unread, would you still be shooting? Would you gradually give up the camera and move on to something else, or is photography so much a part of who you are that it wouldn’t matter if anyone ever noticed?
This is what I find so fascinating about street photographers like Saul Leiter, Vivian Maier and, most recently, Fred Herzog. These are photographers who spent almost their entire lives obsessively carrying around a camera, shooting whatever they could, and yet, remained invisible to the rest of the world. Herzog has been shooting street photography, mainly in Vancouver, since 1953, but it has only been since 2007 that his work has gotten any notice. A German immigrant, Herzog found the culture of his new-found Canadian home captivating and incredibly vibrant and used his camera to chronicle the world around him.
Fred Herzog was born in Germany in 1930 and lost both of his parents during the war (his mother died from paratyphoid and his father from cancer). His early life was difficult. After the war, people were hungry, jobs were scarce, and there was the shock felt throughout the country and the rest of the world as the full extent of the Holocaust became known. Immigrating to Canada in 1952, he took odd jobs wherever he could find them. He rented a place at a rooming house, which is where he met Ferro Shelley Marincowitz, a South African who also happened to be a medical photographer. Herzog had an interest in photography; his camera was one of the few items he brought with him from Germany. Marincowitz encouraged that interest and soon they found a basement suite where they built a darkroom for both of them to share.
Over the next several years, Herzog read about technique, studied other photographers, and spent every spare moment shooting. His friendship with Marincowitz eventually led to getting a job as a medical photographer himself, first at St. Paul’s Hospital, and four years later at the University of British Columbia. Although, he was making a living as a full-time photographer, his heart was pushed in another direction – shooting the urban landscape of downtown Vancouver. He would spend most of his time in the older section of town which, according to him, was the more interesting section. “The people whose living room is the street are far more expressive to me and far more uninhibited,” he says, “than the business people in the gray suits who try to express an authority that they may or may not have.”
Herzog was obsessed with the energy of the city. He was drawn to the neon signs, the colorful cars, the food markets, and billboards. He wanted to capture life as it was, to document the “American dream”. He wasn’t interested in commenting on social policy or expressing an opinion one way or another, just showing reality. This was one of the reasons he used color film. It was the way he saw the city and the way he wanted others to see it.
Herzog has spent decades with his camera in his hand, walking not only the streets of Vancouver, but also San Francisco, Montreal, Seattle, and other major cities. It has only been in the last several years, however, that his work has been recognized by galleries and art critics around the world. There are a couple of reasons his work was ignored, both of them having to do with his choice of film. Color photography in the 50s and 60s was associated primarily with advertising and family snapshots. Black and white was the film for fine art photographs; only amateurs shot in color. At that time, anyone trying to get taken seriously in the art world had to shoot in black and white.
The other reason is that Kodachrome, Herzog’s film of choice, was extremely expensive to print and the film had to be sent to Kodak to be processed. Herzog was just scraping by and all of his spare money went to buying more film, so rather than having prints made, he had them made into slides, tens of thousands of them. This meant he had no prints to show to galleries, which might otherwise have seen his work. It has only been recently, with the development of technology, and the ease of using scanners and ink-jet printers, that many of his images have been rescued from his basement and become important to the art world today.
When we look at photographs in black and white, they don’t evoke the same senses as when they are in color. Somehow, being in color, photographs become a part of our collective memory. They show us a time that we all recognize, whether from living it, or hearing about it from parents or grandparents. Because a lot of Herzog’s work isn’t posed or staged, most of the subjects are anonymous. They are either not facing the camera or turned to the side. They could be anyone, which means, in a sense, his photographs belong to all of us. When I look at his work, I see my grandparents walking down the streets of Chicago. I can see their faces, smell the streets, know what the fabric of their jackets feel like. They may have been taken in Vancouver, but, to me, they could just as easily be New York or St. Louis.
There is also a sincerity in Herzog’s work that is rare. It’s almost as if he didn’t have to really try, that the images just came to him. All he had to do was be there, ready and available to see and capture those moments. They are in no way contrived, but are honest, just telling the stories of the events that unfolded in front of him. And, yet, each one seems to be perfectly timed, like he knew what he wanted to do and wasn’t going to leave until it happened. There is that perfect balance in his work of making the nearly impossible look simple. “I take pride in saying these are all how we looked, not how we wanted to look, or staged. You cannot stage pictures,” he says. “That is something I have many many times defended. People say ‘Well you can stage that.’ I say ‘No, you cannot, and I can prove it to you.’ Many times over I’ve taken a second shot after [some] kids have seen me, and nothing. It’s a different picture.”
Fred Herzog never let the lack of attention to his work stop him from doing what he loved and he doesn’t let the sudden fame he is experiencing stop him now. It puzzles him a bit, but is glad that it took so long, saying, “I’m glad it didn’t come earlier, because now I’m public property.” His love for photography has never wavered over the past 60 years, and he still shoots on a regular basis. “Take street pictures because it hones your instincts for speed and for quick composition. But above all what you bring in your mind to the scene is what makes your picture,” he says. “If you don’t read, if you don’t have discussions with enlightened friends, you do not get there. There is a saying about seeing: ‘Only a few people can see but most people don’t even look.’ And that says a lot to me. You can only see if you have something in your mind to bring to the picture. The camera is just the least important adjunct to your ideas. Your observations are important because they’re you. The camera is just a gadget you can carry on in your hand or around your neck or on a tripod.”
If you are interested in prints, Fred Herzog is represented exclusively by the Equinox Gallery in Vancouver.