Fred Herzog’s history-making photographs have documented the changing city in 80,000 frames
During the half-century in which Fred Herzog has been photographing Vancouver, the city has not simply matured or evolved, as urban places are commonly said to do. Rather, it has mutated from one species of town into another. Formerly considered a kind of outpost or backwater, its waterfront girded by industry, Vancouver in recent decades has become one of the models of North American urbanism, a place vastly more cosmopolitan, sophisticated, and cultured than it was when Herzog first trained his camera on it. Yet, to Herzog’s eye, the city has also surrendered something that was once essential to its core, a singular, organic social energy that animated its central streets and public spaces.
Since arriving in Vancouver in 1953 from his native Stuttgart, Germany, by way of Toronto, the 76-year-old artist has been recording the city’s storefronts and street signs, workplaces and arcades, sidewalks and back lanes.
“I’m interested first of all in what it is that makes society work,” he explains in conversation with the Straight at his West Side home. “When I came here, the city was unique.”¦The store windows were full of what was at first sight totally incongruous stuff, and you’d say, ”˜Who the hell buys that?’ But then you’d take a closer look, and if you had a connectedness to the history of North America”¦you’d see that they formed a microcosm of the culture.”
Herzog taught himself photography as a young man in Germany, initially taking travel pictures and landscapes. But it was the pervasive oddness of Vancouver, its shimmering, neon-charged thoroughfares and ragged clapboard houses, that turned him into an artist in the mould of Walker Evans and Robert Frank, striving, as he says, to capture “how people live and manifest themselves, how they communicate with each other, what their body language is and where they hang out”. Most significantly for photographic history, he chose to work primarily with colour film at a time when virtually all so-called serious photography was done in black and white.
For this achievement, which mixes technical innovation with an exhaustive visual record of the city that stretches back 50 years, Herzog’s work is now being celebrated with his first major solo exhibition, a retrospective at the Vancouver Art Gallery that opens next Thursday (January 25) and runs until mid-May. Through digital technology, over 100 colour slides—selected from the roughly 80,000 photographs in Herzog’s personal archive—have been turned into large, luminous prints for the show.
The images here are uncannily powerful, and not merely because of the flexible instinct for detail and composition that allowed Herzog to take a huge variety of perspectives on Vancouver, from close-up inventories of secondhand goods to neighbourhood panoramas. It’s also because the photographs describe just how radically the face and, with it, the life of Vancouver has changed. A trio of 1959 shots of Granville Street—Granville/Robson, Granville/Smithe, and White Lunch, Granville—shows pedestrians and traffic bustling under a dense, layered canopy of neon, past florist shops, diners, furniture stores, and ranks of glowing cinema entranceways. Hastings at Columbia, shot the year before, depicts a neatly dressed crowd of the seasonal workers who would pour into the city in the colder months, packing the bars, billiard halls, and cabarets that stood on a block now associated nationwide with desolation and blight. Equally striking is 1957’s Robson Street, with its scuffed, single-storey hardware store and sewing-supplies shop radiating a plainspoken, domestic aura that contrasts starkly with the glittering consumer utopia located there now. It all looks fundamentally improvised and haphazard—“a little bit rough and ragged and woolly on the outside”¦a little bit mixed up and unplanned”, as Herzog puts it.
In anyone old enough to remember even vestiges of these streetscapes, among the first reactions to these scenes will be an unreflective nostalgia. Yet Herzog himself warns against this indulgence by pointing out that not everything “picturesque” about the city he first encountered in the ’50s can be recalled fondly.
“In those days we had much more smog and fog, and that is good for pictures,” he explains. “People burned their garbage, and that all helped my photographs because they have atmosphere.”¦This is one of those conundrums. Photographers don’t necessarily feed on that which is good for us.”
All the same, he says he has witnessed a gradual waning of what he calls the “disordered vitality” that once characterized the downtown streets that he wandered with his camera. “It’s boring now,” he argues, “because when you walk down the street you see only a grey concrete building with aluminum trimmings and a neat sign which you’ve already seen 200 times before because it’s part of a chain of dry cleaners or banks or sandwich shops.”
This, he says, is especially true of Robson Street, once the hub of the city’s German community and now a place shorn of connections not only to place but to history. “Go to one of the main streets in Singapore now and one of the first things you’ll say is, ”˜That looks like Robson Street,’ because all the companies that sell clothes and shoes and watches and electronics offer the same stuff worldwide. And it’s not interesting to me as a photographer.”¦That’s sad, because each business on that street [Robson] was unique and owned by an individual. Now it’s all part of chains.”¦The whole street has been replaced. What we have now is not a version of what it was in a more modern style. What we have now is something else.”
The commercial homogenization of urban centres by large, corporate retailers is, as Herzog points out, an international phenomenon. Yet according to Don Luxton, director of Heritage Vancouver, the growing blandness that Herzog claims to see may have specific local causes, too.
“It’s not all doom and gloom downtown, but there has been a huge shift,” Luxton says in his office, located, appropriately enough, in the elegant 1912 Rogers Building at Granville and West Pender streets. Luxton, whose nonprofit advocacy group lobbies to protect heritage structures ranging from the Vogue Theatre to the PNE’s wooden roller coaster, notes that pockets of the urban core—such as parts of Denman Street, Davie Village, Chinatown, and the Downtown Eastside—retain the unique, jumbled energy depicted in Fred Herzog’s older photographs. Even so, he says, the invaluable record formed by Herzog’s work suggests that our current, incredibly quick redevelopment of huge slices of the city centre neglects—even discourages—the strange but lively variety that Vancouver’s sidewalks once boasted.
“Just the development patterns, where you have to assemble a 200-foot frontage to build a tower, means that all of a sudden you’ve got very regimented storefronts and much less of that quirkiness,” he observes. “The downtown is not the same place it was, and it’s not just the height and the density, but it is the regularity of the breaking-up of the commercial spaces as well. As they’re being rebuilt, they go to a certain dimension, type, look, and material that don’t allow a lot of personal variation.”¦So the new stuff is never going to have the same character.”¦Everything’s just like, whomp, ”˜There’s your 25-foot commercial retail unit’—whomp, whomp, one after the other.”
It’s the kind of standardized division of space normally associated with suburban development. And in the meticulously planned, vertical version of tract housing now crowding areas like Coal Harbour and the north shore of False Creek, Luxton detects the desire for a sedate mannerliness that is at odds with urban life as it is lived in other major cities and was once lived here, in its own idiosyncratic way.
“Putting more population in the downtown peninsula is not a bad thing,” Luxton says. “It’s interesting, though, when you think even about issues like noise. One of the things that’s happened is we’ve gotten more prescriptive on noise, because people in areas like Concord Pacific are not going to buy in if it’s noisier than a place they could buy in Surrey. So they don’t want a restaurant down below.”¦Whereas in, say, Paris, it’s going to be noisy, you’re going to expect music. And if people are yelling outside, then get over it, you know?”¦In a weird way, our good policy and good sense has taken us to a place that’s almost too polite and too regulated.”¦I wouldn’t say that we’ve grown up and gotten old and dull, but that’s kind of the direction it’s going in.”
Tied directly to this development boom and the spiralling real-estate prices driving it, another trend has worked against what Herzog calls the street-level “conviviality” expressed in such early images as 1959’s Family on Lawn and 1960’s Flí¢neur, Granville. Whether you’re looking at the luxury boutiques of Robson or the bleaker stretches of the Downtown Eastside, Herzog says, it’s clear that “the average working person is simply no longer cutting it” in Vancouver.
In the view of Vancouver novelist and critic Michael Turner, this fact forms a main theme that has emerged from Herzog’s work over the decades.
“The people that worked in the cafés in those old photos of Granville Street lived in the West End,” notes Turner, who has written an insightful, wide-ranging essay for Fred Herzog: Vancouver Photographs, a book that Douglas & McIntyre is publishing in conjunction with the VAG exhibition. “The people that were ticket takers or ushers lived downtown or in Kitsilano or East Van. All these people now live out in the suburbs—they can’t afford to live in the city. They take the SkyTrain and buses in to work every day, and when they’re finished they leave. So their only relationship to the customer is an economic relationship. They’re not walking home with them afterwards—they’re not seeing them in the parks.”¦So you get this alienation.”
With this narrowing of the demographic that the downtown is being rebuilt to serve, little remains of what Turner refers to as the “particularity” of Vancouver that thrived when Herzog began taking urban photographs.
“I used to live downtown”¦so I’ve traversed it in different ways,” he says. “But I just find I’m less and less interested”¦because it’s the opposite of what it used to be. It was an exciting, wild, diverse place. Now it’s as predictable as a Filet-o-Fish.”
Fred Herzog’s photographic project began at the end of one era in Vancouver’s history and the beginning of another—at the precise moment when the city started shifting from a natural resource–based economy to its current role as tourist destination and lifestyle mecca. The Vancouver in his images from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s was no paragon of urban elegance, despite the vintage glamour of its main thoroughfares. It had its areas of neglect and deprivation, its grime, its distasteful and tacky features (particularly wherever the now-restricted billboards dominated the scene). Herzog aimed his lens at these aspects too, lyricizing them in the way that photographers like Evans and Frank did before him.
Certainly, none of it, whether boisterous or placid, was as sculpted, precise, and tidy as what has since appeared on Robson Street or, more recently, on Pacific Boulevard, Richards Street, and around Coal Harbour. Yet neither did any of it seem as inhibited and carefully monitored, as anodyne and impassive, as those newer streetscapes.
Remarking on this difference does not necessarily mean lapsing into nostalgia, where memories are neatened and purged of unsavoury or odd details—qualities that are, ironically, the very opposite of the motley, eccentric Vancouver depicted in Herzog’s earlier photographs. Indeed, whereas nostalgia focuses on the irretrievable, the urban spirit that appears in Herzog’s work may yet be recaptured as we replan and rebuild Vancouver’s downtown core. Perhaps all that’s required is less fretting over the “public disorder” that so concerns city hall, and more openness from both officials and citizens to the disordered vitality that informs Herzog’s unique visual testament to the city.