Fred Herzog

clip_image002I’ve got a cupboard in my living room packed full of photographs that I have taken over the years. Many are of family, still more were taken on holidays, a few may have artistic value. Fred Herzog had a cellar full. More than 100,000 Kodachrome colour slides were boxed up waiting for technology and an opportunity.

He was born near Stuttgart in 1930, and grew up during the war. His mother died of paratyphoid in 1940, a victim of poor medical treatment, his home was bombed and the family dispersed, his father was 43 when he succumbed to cancer in 1946. In 1950, the young Herzog took up photography around his German home and in 1952 he emigrated to Canada. Unfortunately all his early work was lost during the sea voyage.

After a year in Toronto he moved to Vancouver which ultimately became not only his home, but the location for the work for which he was to become notable.

He shot his first roll of ISO10 Kodachrome in 1953 and it contained this image of the CPR pier and Marine Building:


He was drawn to the gritty areas of Vancouver, possibly because that was the part of the city he could relate to as a result of his difficult war time upbringing,. “In Germany you did not buy something secondhand—it is a social necessity to look successful,” he says. “For me it is not. Canada offered an interesting contrast. It had secondhand shops in the American idiom. I saw in the secondhand store windows the icons of Americanism in a picturesque jumble.”


While every other serious photographer was working in black and white, he chose to work in colour. This was many years before William Eggleston pioneered its use.

I first encountered his work at the “A Question of Colour” exhibition when I was struck by the honest, unpretentious reality of “Man with Bandage”


This exhibition showed how other photographers have risen to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s challenge to prove him wrong about colour being a suitable medium for art photography. It’s fitting that Herzog’s work should be exhibited alongside Cartier-Bresson’s.

“Content cannot be manufactured, in my opinion. That which I can find is better than that which you can make. That which we find, the work and the use of the people out there, it’s natural, that’s what ordinary people do, that interests me.”
“I take pride in saying these are all how we looked, not how we wanted to look, or staged. You cannot stage pictures. 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.”

He turned to documentary without realising he was establishing the genre. In his own words:

“The reason I chose documentary photography — I didn’t even know that word — [was] I had great fun walking around the old streets of Vancouver, looking at the second-hand stores, the people and the signs. To me, that was a kind of vitality that spoke to me directly.”
“In that, I think I was really different. In those days I didn’t think of it that way. But what we know now is that nobody has done that, not even in small bodies of work. Nobody has done that. Before that [it was] buildings or swans or babies, sunsets or landscapes or barns with yellow tulips. I tell you nobody did that. It’s only now that that hits home.”
“Nobody did that even in the U.S.A. I have often looked at American yearbooks and things, the American Photography colour yearbook, that was a big thing, I bought those. But they’re full of pretty pictures of women, some of them naked, some of them beautiful. Even the ones who are not naked look beautiful to me. Perhaps it’s my age. But there was no street photography. None done. And I did that, and I did it with a passion, and I did it with variety. You can see that now in the pictures.”


clip_image015 clip_image017

His comments on this photo of the neon jungle at Hastings and Carrall show how difficult times were for him:


“I only took one picture. Not two or three for safety – I had no money for that. So I had to know exactly how to expose it, take one picture, and hope it doesn’t get lost in the mail. And some got lost in the mail. I had to send [the Kodachrome film] to Kodak in another part of North America. They could get lost and they did get lost.”
“When I see that now, I only have one slide of this. I think ‘How the hell did I not find the money to take two?’ Honestly, it was a question of eating, in those days. In those days, I put everything into photography, to the point where people said ‘This guy’s a neurotic.’”

Signs and neon lights seemed to embody everything American to him.

“The signs are a very very important pictorial part of the American city. I won’t even say pictorial, an important cultural part of the American city. If you take the Coca-Cola and other signs away from America downtown, you have nothing. Maybe some interesting architecture, but not very much.”


Herzog carried on photographing a changing city through the 50s and 60s with little or no recognition, driven largely by his own passion for it. He was gradually accumulating an historic collection. Although it was unshown, he knew its value:

“I was aware I was taking art. That’s the conceit of young people. I knew that what I am doing is not only unique, but that someday I’m going to unpack that and shock people with it. And that was 50 years ago. It’s sort of a fairy tale story, but that’s exactly how it’s beginning to play out.”

The world got to know him in 2007 with an exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. He is pragmatic about his success late in life:

“[That photo] is from the 60s. Look at how that can be resurrected through the digital method. If I had had to do a show then, I simply could not have afforded it, it would have cost 10 times as much and it wouldn’t have been as good.


“All the factors that lead to a good show have come together now. At my age, 76, perhaps it would have been nice to have that at age 60 or so. But I’m glad, I’m happy, I’m proud. I think actually it’s better it’s now, because I think it would have changed my life [to have success earlier]. Instead of taking pictures I would have sat around at parties.

“This has been a coincidence of things. One is that Kathleen [Bartels] who is directing the Vancouver Art Gallery wants this sort of thing. The other thing is that it’s technically possible now to make them to a budget, and to make them very good. Whether a picture was taken in the 50s or now makes no difference.”

“It’s wonderful. Let’s face it, we don’t want to live under a log. All of a sudden I have found recognition for something…it’s a funny thing. Artists have always liked these pictures, but they haven’t had the power to say he should be in the art gallery. Also they thought maybe painting may be better. People who have the highest rank in painting like my pictures but none of them came quite out and said ‘I’m going to talk to people at the Art Gallery, maybe you should have [a show] down there.’ It could have been done.

“But I was never bitter about it. In the U.S. people who did [similar photography] in the 1970s like Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld and Joel Meyerowitz, William Eggleston…they had done stuff like that and it got into the Museum of Modern Art and other similar museums. They had the funds and the grants and the money, and also the spirit that this can be used as art. In Canada, in this respect, we were hanging a little bit behind. We just did not have major art gallery shows of photography. Maybe in the east, but sometimes there were things we couldn’t do here in the west.”


Fred Herzog’s quotes are from interviews with John Mackie of the Vancouver Sun in June, 2005, and January, 2007 (

Other information from:

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: