Legendary Vancouver street photographer Fred Herzog lived a long life and shot tens of thousands of pictures over many decades before passing away at 88 on Monday. But he found fame only in the last 20 or so years of his life and career.
He's survived by his daughter Ariane and son Tyson and was represented by Equinox Gallery.
Herzog taught himself photography as a young man in Germany, initially taking travel pictures and landscapes. Immigrating to Canada in 1952, he started shooting photographs of Vancouver streets as soon as he arrived in the city. In a time when serious photographers used strictly black-and-white film, Herzog’s photos were groundbreaking.
“It was really unusual, in the ’50s, ’60s, and even into the ’70s, for people who thought of themselves as artists to use colour materials,” said Grant Arnold, Audain curator for the Vancouver Art Gallery, told the Straight when Herzog won the Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts in 2014. “Colour materials were generally associated with the commercial world, such as advertising.”
What also set his work apart was that often the passersby that were his subjects had no idea he was shooting them. Usually, he caught them anonymously and unawares, in the tumult of the everyday. One of the few shots where people ever posed for him was one of his most famous: the1962 photo Boys on Shed, with six kids sitting on the roof of a dilapidated garage behind one of the now-disappearing wooden houses of Old Vancouver, and two more standing beside it.
However he exploded into the public consciousness when the VAG presented a huge retrospective of his colour photos from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s in 2007. Through digital technology, over 100 colour Kodachrome slides—selected from the roughly 80,000 photographs in Herzog’s personal archive—were turned into large, luminous prints for the show.
“The Vancouver Art Gallery director, Kathleen Bartels, said to me, ‘You know, you became a rock star overnight,’ ” Herzog recalled to the Straight in a 2011 interview. “There’s a bit of truth to that. People came to it [the exhibit] and broke into tears because they recognized a city they had forgotten existed.”
Soon other galleries were showing him and his work was fetching thousands of dollars from well-heeled collectors. The explosion of interest in his work led local publishing house Douglas & McIntyre to assemble Photographs, a book of many of his iconic images in 2011.
In his later days Herzog sometimes bemoaned the lack of colour on the Vancouver streets of today, compared to the time when he shot its streets. “It’s boring now,” he argued, “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.”