Fred Herzog - Reading PicturesWednesday, February 09, 2011
|Photo by Fred Herzog|
While I have known German-born Vancouver photographer for some years I did not deal with him professionally until 1996 when a Memphis, Tennessee publisher commissioned writer Peter C. Newman to write a book about Vancouver and for me to be the its photo editor. I immediately called on Fred Herzog, already a legend then in his expertly taken street pictures that he captured with the colourful, but difficult to use (slow and you had to be extremely accurate with exposure), Kodak Kodachrome transparency film. Some of us were invited every once in a while for slide projections in his house. Even to this day of digital projection and huge flat screen monitors, nothing can top a properly exposed and focused slide on a screen courtesy of a good slide projector.
I asked Herzog to pick some of his favourite views of Vancouver and to go back to the same spot (that a German would know precisely what focal length of lens he would have used the first time around was a given!) and take the picture again. The book, Vancouver Living Well was a pleasant and beautiful book, more so because of the considerable contribution of Fred Herzog.
|Photos by Fred Herzog|
Herzog's use of Kodachrome film to take his best pictures in the 50s, 60s and on, brought with it the limitation that while this film was excellent in every possible way, its reproduction onto paper, be it normal colour reversal paper or the more expensive Cibachrome, were not up to snuff. The reproduction of photographic slides that would show all the detail embedded in them had to wait until the beginning of the 21st century with the advent of the drum scan and the well made inkjet print, given the art speak denomination of a giclée. It is the giclée that graced the wall of the Equinox Gallery tonight.
When I saw Herzog’s giclées at his first big show at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2007 I was amazed at their quality. Finally, the medium of photography had caught up to the art gallery. Finally, the prints did justice to Herzog’s expertise in handling a small camera with slow film and being able to take pictures in low light, in some cases off the cuff, before the image changed or the people of his pictures moving out of frame. Herzog did not have such modern tools as the anti shake technology of the modern digital camera or auto focus. He had to make do with equipment that would now be considered as passé as the cars from the 50s and 60s that so often appear in his views of a Vancouver that was, and is no more.
In that splendid show at the VAG, there was one moment that pretty much broke my heart. Herzog, who must be at least ten years older than I am and looking pretty frail said something like this:
I am very grateful to the VAG for this show and all their efforts. I just wish I would have been discovered when I was younger and in better health.”
There are many who will accuse me of being a spoil sport and of sheer jealousy. They would be to some extent right. I have yet to be "discovered" and I do believe that my photo files might be as important as Herzog’s. I might complain and use as an excuse that while Herzog stuck to street pictures in colour I did all kinds of stuff and by not being pigeonholed I am less likely to be ever discovered.
While Herzog is now selling his prints for good money and is finally (ample proof that God indeed does exist!) paying off bills, I have had a bit of struggle through the years and even more so now.
With that out of the way here is my impression of his show at the Equinox: Fred Herzog: Reading Pictures
I was completely underwhelmed in the presence of overwhelmingly beautiful photographs. Some of them called Early Photographs in an upstairs room had some especially arresting ones. These were particularly so because as a photographer I could see the difficulty of shooting late in the afternoon when neon light was beginning to bathe the sidewalks and Herzog captured a couple crossing the street with the man looking back. At best of times, even with a digital camera, this would have been a tough shot. Herzog got it, with no excuses. It is superb.
I was completely underwhelmed in the presence of overwhelmingly beautiful photographs.
I told my friend Ian McGuffie, who had a wide smile on his face as a result of the wonderful show, “Ian these pictures almost leave me cold. I think it is because I am getting old and I have seen too many pictures. I am cynical and jaded.” McGuffie was quick to counter with, “Do you feel the same about your photographs?” I just as quickly replied, “Yes.” But I may not have been entirely honest. My photography involves the portraiture of people I love or know. I like to reveal a bit of their inner being and this pleases me. Yes, I am satisfied with my pictures, because they satisfy me. That's what counts even if I will never be discovered as Fred Herzog has been.
But I believe there is more to this than just that. Like Cartier-Bresson, Herzog worked in a loneliness of one who had mastered the use of a camera in an era where few owned a camera or had the knowledge to go out and take pictures. I argue that if Cartier-Bresson came to Vancouver as a young man he would be on employment insurance in a short while. There are many more photographers out there shooting scenes in the street with cameras that make the task a bit less onerous. We see them everywhere, on facebook, of Flickr and even in large sections of the National Geographic where if they use your picture you get photo credit glory and no more. We are inundated with colour, we are inundated with colour pictures. We are inundated with perfectly sharp, punchy and colourful pictures of India (taken by someone who lives on Sperling Avenue in Burnaby) or of grand pictures of monasteries in Tibet snapped by someone who hails from Surrey or the Westside. The exotic is commonplace. But paradoxically for Herzog, the commonplace of yesteryear is now the new exotic.
Few at Herzog’s show today might have appreciated the sometimes muted colours or the lack of punchy contrast. If anything the show was a photographer’s photographer show.
It is this loneliness of approach, of Herzog’s loneliness of approach, that finally did me in and I had to leave the great show with a tail between my legs. But my quick exit should not diminish my admiration for someone who justly deserves all the acclaim that has finally come to him! And my quick exit should not diminish in any way that this is a show that should not be missed.