Before sitting down to write this article I browsed through ‘Fred Herzog Photographs’ again. As I expected I discovered a few photographs that I’d forgotten about. The photographs that held my attention this time around, are not the same photographs that held my attention when I looked at the book two weeks ago. This tendency to ‘discover new’ photographs with each reading is one sure sign that I have a great photography book in my possession.
Herzog’s Ambition and Dedication
The question of switching paths to work as a photojournalist was never seriously entertained, or not for long. “I tried,” he remembers. “I went to the agencies. But I was married with children. I needed to make a living, and I didn’t have the constitution to do what Robert Capa or James Nachtwey had done,” referring to two of photography’s most intrepid war photographers. “Also, if a magazine like Life wanted to do a story about Kansas, they wanted to see a wheat field, a pretty woman in a kitchen and horses. They beautified the world into a Family of Man that didn’t exist,” he says, alluding to the landmark exhibition by that name curated by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. “I wanted to show the world the way it is. By doing it only a few hours a day and not every day, I had the freedom to what I wanted.”
What a wonderful excerpt. Contained within a few plain spoken sentences is what I’d call his photographic philosophy. Would he have enjoyed making his living making photographs? Sure, but he was smart enough to realize that it wasn’t going to happen, and more importantly he made providing for his family his top priority.
Once his priorities were aligned, he got to work. And work he did, consistently for decades. Vancouver was his project, and he never strayed from his goal of showing it the way it the way he saw it. Photograph after photograph you can see his curiosity and passion for his adopted hometown. I’ve only spent a few years wandering around with a camera but I know for certain that if it’s not something you’re passionate about day in an day out, you’ll quickly get bored and give up. Herzog never gave up.
His work is often categorized as street photography. I can see why, but for me he’s a pure documentary photography. His subject was Vancouver and it’s people. Sure, he photographed candidly on the street but he also photographed the urban landscape, billboards, inside storefronts, interiors, still lives, and made portraits. He could do it all.
I use the word pure which sometimes can get distorted. What I mean is that his pursuit was pure, at least in the body of work that’s been published. He never strayed off course or flirted with other types of photography. For some, perhaps that means his photography may have never evolved. I’m fine with that because there’s something incredibly inspiring about a photographer who can remain focused and follow their vision for decades. Hell, it’s miraculous.
The Color of The City
Herzog is considered a pioneer of color photography. His Vancouver is filled with colorful cars, bright lights and saturated billboards. The color brings the vibrancy of the city to life. Browsing through the book, I imagine a HBO drama set in 1960′s Vancouver based on Herzog’s work. What was this growing city like back then? It must have been exciting.
Beyond the colorful cityscapes and billboards, Herzog shows us the human color of the city as well. Sure, it’s a city where the majority of people are white, but Herzog shows us it’s also a city of Chinese immigrants and African-Canadians. Through these photographs we get a glimpse of the cosmopolitan city that Vancouver was becoming. Through his photographs, I can sense that Herzog saw the type of city Vancouver would become today.
Some of my favorite photographs in the book are the candid street portraits. I wonder if Herzog became a regular sight in the neighborhoods he roamed? There’s a certain comfort you can sense in the photographs. A photographer comfortable in his city and a city comfortable with its photographer doing his work. That relationship creates an intimacy in the photographs that lures you in deeper, wanting to know more, wanting to visit those streets, at those moments in time.
I might be getting a bit sentimental and nostalgic. I’m fine with that. The nostalgia of the photographs is difficult to escape so I just go with it. What’s also difficult to escape is Herzog’s passion and dedication to showing the world the way it was. I think he succeeded and I think every documentary photographer can learn from his brilliant body of work.