Reviewed by Kenneth Tanaka
Great photography can be made in the public eye by those eager for recognition in their own time, but it can also be made quietly in the margins, away from the spotlight, perhaps to be lost in obscurity, perhaps to be discovered later.
—from David Campany's introductory essay to Modern Color
I first learned of Fred Herzog's work right here at TOP from Mike's June 30, 2008 article "Great Photo Books You Can Buy New—Part III" The subject book was Vancouver Photographs, a book published for a 2007 Vancouver Art Gallery show and one that's become among my most treasured and most viewed books.
Now, somewhat unexpectedly, we have Modern Color, a much broader and richer retrospective of Fred Herzog's work published by Hatje Cantz. It's simply glorious. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Fred Herzog was born in Germany in 1930 but emigrated to Canada as a young man, finding a job as a medical photographer in a Vancouver at the University of British Columbia. (Thirty years later he retired as head of the University's Biomedical Communications Department in 1990.) Like so many others, Herzog pursued street style photography around Vancouver as an amateur pastime after work and on the weekends in the late 1950s. Apparently he liked it because he kept shooting for the next 40+ years.
Longtime Vancouver residents might primarily view Herzog’s work as a valuable historical record, as Jeff Wall did, as it captures a slightly scruffy mid-century city that no longer exists.
The rest of us see some remarkable mid-century street-style photography, made all the more remarkable by its early use of color. Herzog did shoot B&W film and some of these images are in the book. But he is more notable for being an early and faithful adopter of Kodachrome slide film on which the majority of the book's images were recorded. While some professional photographers were taking bows for their early color work, Herzog was quietly, anonymously cranking out an average of two weekly rolls of work that rivaled that of most of the contemporary pros.
You can see many of Fred Herzog’s images at his gallery's site. They’re quiet, unforced, uncontrived, often atmospherically emotive, but always carefully descriptive and insightful. In the absence of formal training Fred Herzog clearly had a keen and extremely consistent eye for photographic composition and timing.
Modern Color seems a perfect retrospective collection of Herzog’s work in typical Hatje Cantz quality. It’s prefaced by three essays, the best of which is, not surprisingly, by David Campany. (Essays are also presented in German at the book's end.) The 330 images are very well reproduced on generous 27"-square pages usually with one image per page. (Unfortunately the designer just couldn't resist ruining a few images with double trucking. But it is only a few.)
I have come to greatly admire Fred Herzog’s work for several main reasons. He seemed to instinctively know how to use the early-era Kodachrome color palette to tremendous advantage for his scenes. He "sees" visual and emotional meaning and depth potential in many scenes. He knows how and when to compress space. He mastered natural light use in an age of ASA 10 and 25. His work represents a standard against which I measure my own slightly congruent efforts.
But in the final analysis I suppose I most admire Fred Herzog’s work because it was done "in the margins" without boastful pretension. It was done for the love and enjoyment of the work, not entirely unlike Vivian Maier’s work. Fortunately, unlike Maier, Fred has received well-deserved recognition within his lifetime and has directed its curation for this wonderful book.
• Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)
• Amazon.de (Germany)
• The Book Depository with free shipping worldwide
• Amazon.com (USA)
• You might find it at bookstores or museums local to you.
©2017 by Kenneth Tanaka, all rights reserved
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Henning Wulff: "I've known Fred Herzog since the '70s. Every once in a while he would invite a group of his friends over and he would show us a couple of trays of Kodachromes he had shot. When scanning and digital printing became viable he was finally 'discovered' and he achieved the acclaim he so richly deserved.
"I still go on walks with him around his favourite Vancouver neighbourhoods, and here, during one walk (he's in the centre) we've just met our mutual friends Tom and Tuulikki Abrahamsson. Tom passed away just recently, but I talked with Fred just a week ago. Fred's work was truly groundbreaking. Colour street photography in the '50s was not easy. He shot Kodachrome, starting with ASA 10 and later higher, with ƒ/3.5 and ƒ/2 lenses in grey, rainy wintertime in Vancouver when the exposure times were often in the 1/2 to 1/8 sec. range. He saw the city with fresh eyes and a determination to persevere with his vision, and his remarkable pictures show he succeeded."
Gordon Brown: "My thanks to Kenneth Tanaka and TOP for the review. I looked at the 27 screens of Herzog photos posted by his gallery. Some of his photos reminded me of Walker Evans's photos."
Ken Tanaka replies: You're not alone. One of the book's essays draws strong visual parallels with Evans's work.
Paul De Zan: "Fred's Vancouver Photographs book is probably the first thing I bought as a result of discovering TOP (and certainly not the last). Simply a killer collection of truly evocative pictures; I've given several copies away. I keep my current copy where visitors can find and explore it...and they do."