Fred Herzog’s Colour Photographs illuminate urban life

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      Fred Herzog: Colour Photographs

      At the Equinox Gallery until April 5

      We were sitting in an East Side café, slurping hot and sour soup and talking about Fred Herzog’s photographs. My friend, a fellow critic, observed that many viewers appreciate Herzog’s work for the wrong reasons. “They think the photos are about nostalgia,” he said, “and they’re not.”

      One of the effects of Herzog’s big retrospective exhibition, which took place last year at the Vancouver Art Gallery, is the firm identification of his vision with a Vancouver that has disappeared. Certainly he established his reputation with the street photos he shot in this city during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. But he has continued to create thousands of urban images and his work, then as now, has nothing to do with a longing for times past.

      It has to do with the striking immediacy of city life, with cars, billboards, neon signs, parking lots, cafés, warehouses, and storefronts. It has to do with people, too, the men, women, and children who stroll the downtown sidewalks, lean towards store windows, sit at lunch counters, or play in weedy lots beside dilapidated rooming houses. It seems that Herzog, who was born in Germany in 1930 and migrated to Canada in 1952, was attracted by the conspicuous social, cultural, and architectural differences between the New World and the Old.

      On view at the Equinox Gallery are 25 colour photographs (ink-jet prints made from Kodachrome slides), again taken between the 1950s and the 1970s, but many of them in places far from Vancouver. There are shots here of Newfoundland, Texas, Oregon, and California, evidence of Herzog’s extensive travels and his non-touristic camera. As with the Vancouver photos, there is a deep attraction to the shapes, colours, textures, and peculiarities of contemporary life. Evident throughout the show are Herzog’s keen eye for the telling moment and his strong sense of composition.

      A steamship sits at a dock, blowing black smoke into the pearly air. Signs in the window of a storefront office advertise “Quick Friendly Service”, “Auto Loans Readily Available”, and—foreshadowing subprime- mortgage disasters to come—“Loans Arranged on Your Signature”. A street-corner preacher thrusts his left arm heavenward, as if hailing a celestial cab, while the most conspicuous member of his audience, a fat white woman with insanely garish makeup, stands fixedly beside him.

      In the 1962 photo Boys on Shed, six kids sit on the roof of a dilapidated garage, and two more stand beside it. This image represents one of the few occasions on which Herzog’s subjects have posed for him. Usually, he catches people anonymously and unawares, in the tumult of the everyday.