FROM BEAUTIFUL TO BLEAK AND BACK
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Main Barber, 1968 (Courtesy of the estate of Fred Herzog and Equinox Gallery)
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
FRED HERZOG (1930-2019) MAY BE ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT PHOTOGRAPHERS you’ve never heard of, just as there are hundreds of other unsung heroes in the slow transition of street photography from a medium dominated by monochrome to one defined by color. Indeed, it is because of Herzog and others like him that we now regard color as not only a valid tool for street work, but, for some, the only way to fly. However, it took a long time to get to this point.
By the time Fred began shooting almost exclusively in what we now call “un-re-gentrified” neighborhoods in the Vancouver of the 1950’s, he had earned his bread with less fanciful work as a medical photographer and fine arts instructor. At the time, the raw, immediate feel of black & white film was still the world’s go-to. Color films were thought to be the domain of amateur snapshots or high-end magazine ads. Monochrome was stark; color was pretty. How could any serious art shot depict the real state of mankind in the plump, primary tones of Kodachrome?
Granville/Smythe, 1959 (Courtesy of the estate of Fred Herzog and Equinox Gallery)
Herzog shot not only what he wanted, confining himself to the same small knot of neighborhoods for most of his shooting life, he shot how he wanted, and Kodachrome was his go-to. Vancouver was run-down and worn, but it was also bursting with a kind of bumptious neon flavor that would have been stripped away in black-and-white. In an age that said that color would beautify (and thus blunt) a picture’s reportorial impact, Herzog set out to demonstrate, in one iconic image after another, that color didn’t soften the harder edges of his world; it actually fleshed them out.
Technology, or rather its slow evolution, kept Fred’s work from being properly seen until years after he had created some of his best work. Kodachrome was a very slow reversal film which defied even the best labs’ efforts to create good qualtity prints, and so Herzog kept the results largely to himself in slide format until the world caught up, delaying the first public exhibition of his work until 2007. The wait was worth it, as his full body of work became one of the most valued studies on a single locality in photographic history. Herzog managed to chronicle the rise, fall, and resurrection of a city in a sprawling portfolio covering more than a third of a century, but, more importantly, he has become, with every passing year since his death in 2019, one of the greatest prophets of the full power of color, not to merely make life warmer, but to render it more completely. Time has vindicated his instinct, the feeling that life, rendered in all its natural hues, could still register the complete range of human experience, from the beautiful to the bleak, and do it faithfully.