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Saturday, May 18, 2013

Fred Herzog

My Room, Harwood Street, 1958, Fred Herzog
Seldom do I write about living artists. Even more rarely do I do photographers. It's not that I have anything against either one, it's just that there are so many of both today, it doesn't seem fair to single out a single artist for special treatment (or even a married one). Fred Herzog is different. First of all he was born in 1930 which makes him 83 years old, so while he's not dead yet, the hands of time are definitely not in his favor. As a photographer, he's also quite apart from most, even most photographers his age. Fred has lived and worked most of his life in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Thus, to begin with, his life's work as a shutterbug has been quite focused. He's created a portrait of a city both geographically and socially. However what makes Fred Herzog's archive of images even more special is the fact that they are in color.
Mom's Shoes, 1969, Fred Herzog
The Old Man, 1959, Fred Herzog
Why is color special? Today, most photographer's shoot in color. However, when Herzog began making pictures seriously around 1950, most "serious" photographers didn't shoot color. Color had long since ceased to be experimental. Even amateurs could buy a roll of Kodachrome and take color pictures. But that was the problem. There was the stench of amateurism in shooting color images. Color; was considered "commercial." It was expensive; it was seen as gaudy; too "pretty," and lacking in artistic subtleties. The black and white image ruled the photographic art world, garnered all the gallery space, and captured all the awards for creative excellence. Yet Fred Herzog embraced color. He shot color slides. Today, his colored world bears such a powerful, realistic, resemblance to the "good ole days" we remember from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, any negative qualities such images might once have had from an artistic standpoint, seem moot and snobbish.
Hastings and Carrall, 1968, Fred Herzog--cringe worthy
Union, Back Alley, 1981, Fred Herzog
Fred Herzog didn't go for the "pretty." Though his work provides wildly extravagant opportunities to wallow feverishly in nostalgia, they are seldom pretty. Many are downright "gritty," even ugly in their harsh reality, which we've tended to forget or minimize amid the nostalgic glow of how good things "used to be." There is beauty present, though it's not to be found so much in the content as in the images themselves, his color juxtapositions, his intuitive sensitivities to the way the camera and its film handled color at a time when very few artists had such an understanding. Black and white images were safe. Color could be rambunctious and unpredictable between the clicking of the shutter and the fabrication of images in the darkroom. Moreover, color was about three times more difficult to control in the darkroom (as in red, yellow, and blue, each hue demanding special attention as the image developed). In shooting color slides, Herzog entrusted his images to a machine, allowing the color chips to fall where they might, exercising control only from behind the camera. His was an artist's mind, and an artist's eye for expressive truth, coupled with a photographer's itchy finger.
Painting Classes, Steveston, 1974, Fred Herzog
Canada Dry, 1966, Fred Herzog,
a tribute to Andy Warhol?
Herzog's work can be evenly divided between his shooting Vancouver and shooting those inhabiting Vancouver. Today we still have urban ugliness, but we often forget just how pervasive it was fifty years ago when beauty of any kind was so costly and inconvenient. Today we even have laws which attempt to keep our urban environment attractive, neat, clean, and healthy. Herzog records a time when the signage alone in our major cities makes us cringe today; when rusting automobiles dominated the weeds of vacant lots, when smoke, litter, and just plain garbage were taken as but one of the accepted costs of living in a big city. Yes, it was a simpler time. Yes, life was less hectic. Yes, people seemed more gentle and caring, but in gazing at Herzog's photos, we also begin to wonder if the haze of nostalgia may have also colored out recollection of the people, as well as the places we knew "back then."

Over 130 more images of Fred Herzog's work can be seen at The Equinox Gallery website.

Wreck at Georgia/Dunlevy, 1966, Fred Herzog

Awake, 1966, Fred Herzog

2nd Hand Store Boy, 1959, Fred Herezog

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