Fred Herzog, the photographer whose colour photographs of Vancouver made him a pioneer in the 1950s, has been named as the winner of this year’s Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts.
Herzog, who immigrated to Canada from Germany in 1952, started taking 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,” says Grant Arnold, Audain curator for the Vancouver Art Gallery, by phone. “Colour materials were generally associated with the commercial world, such as advertising.”
For many years, Herzog’s work remained hidden, relegated to informal gatherings of artists. He made his living as a medical photographer for the University of British Columbia until 1990, relatively unknown for his iconic street photographs.
Arnold explains that “even until the ’80s, photography was sort of marginal in terms of an activity that artists undertook. Photography was seen to be lower down the ladder of the art world than painting or sculpture or drawing.”
However, in the last decade, interest in his work has increased immensely, drawing gallery exhibitions, book contracts, and status as one of Vancouver’s most esteemed photographers.
His photos are widely respected not only because of their innovation, but also because of the depth in each and every one of them. Arnold states that Herzog “has a kind of amazing ability to portray a gesture that might speak to something larger. You know, a person smoking on a cigarette in a way that speaks to the way in which we overcome obstacles and alienation and being tired, and that sort of thing. He had a really amazing ability to do that.”
Unfortunately, the 83-year-old has been feeling unwell, and was unavailable to be interviewed. However, in a statement issued by the Vancouver Art Gallery, he says, “I am thrilled to be in the ranks of the few recipients of this award, and wish to express my gratitude to the members of the selection committee who have honoured me with their vote.
“I have been taking photographs while walking the streets of Vancouver on my own for over fifty years, so it is very meaningful for me to receive this important recognition in the company of my peers.”
The Audain Prize, awarded by the Audain Foundation for Visual Arts in British Columbia, is one of the most prestigious arts awards in the province. Since 1997, it has awarded a prize of $30,000 to an artist that has spent a lifetime sharing their art with others. Last year’s winners were Takao Tanabe and Gathie Falk. Other previous winners include Marian Penner Bancroft, Rodney Graham, Gordon Smith, and Ann Kipling.