If Fred Herzog has discovered anything over the past half-decade, it’s that fame isn’t as fun as it looks from the outside. And that’s not just because his days of grabbing his camera and walking the streets of Vancouver in anonymity are now over.
His less-than-thrilled attitude about being a celebrity is made clear the second Herzog picks up the phone in his West Side home. The word from the publicist is that the 81-year-old has been having health issues that prevent him from meeting journalists face-to-face to discuss his new book, Fred Herzog: Photographs. While he’s not feeling great, it’s obvious that he has more on his mind than his physical well-being.
The first question the Georgia Straight asks Herzog is “How are you?”
“Well, not too tired,” he responds. “I went blind in my left eye, and now I’m getting a sore throat. And I’m overloaded, constantly. It’s just too much for an old man. That’s the cost of fame—I’m now a public property.”
When an apology is quickly issued for taking up his time, however, it’s clear that while Herzog might not be feeling totally right as rain, that’s done nothing to dull his sense of humour.
Laughing loudly, he shoots back with: “Well, I hope I don’t do much more complaining. Or maybe I’ll find something else to complain about.”
He doesn’t, however. Instead, Herzog proves so eager to talk about Photographs that he happily extends the originally allotted interview time of 15 minutes to three-quarters of an hour. Over the course of the conversation, it’s obvious that, in some ways, he doesn’t have a lot to complain about these days. As those familiar with his back story are well-aware, Herzog has, late in life, become a phenomenon, his colour photos of Vancouver in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s showing in galleries around the planet and fetching thousands of dollars from well-heeled collectors. The explosion of interest in his work has led local publishing house Douglas & McIntyre to assemble Photographs, which collects many of his suddenly iconic images.
Herzog didn’t set out to become famous. A medical photographer at UBC until he retired in 1990, he did much of the shooting that he’s known for today on weekends and evenings.
Despite teaching photography at SFU in the ’60s, and showing his pictures at private functions organized by high-powered friends, it wasn’t until a 2007 exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery that he seemed to explode into the public consciousness.
“The Vancouver Art Gallery director, Kathleen Bartels, said to me, ‘You know, you became a rock star overnight,’ ” Herzog notes. “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.”
Many of the pictures in Photographs are from that exhibit, their brilliance having a lot to do with the fact they were shot in colour at a time when most people were working in black-and-white. Hence, you’ll get the blazing red of a small child’s bike mirroring oversize Coca-Cola signs in 1960’s wonderfully animated Bogner’s Grocery, which looks like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.
“What’s miraculous about the whole thing is that when I started taking photographs in that style in 1957—in colour—there was nobody that I could copy. Nobody,” Herzog reminisces.
Just as engrossing is the way that Photographs offers a window to the past. Consider Robson Street (1957), where—with the arrival of the Gap and Banana Republic still four decades away—two mothers push strollers up a street filled with mom-and-pop businesses such as Alfredo’s Hardware store and B.C. Sewing Supplies. Or Untitled, Granville St. from 1960, where, under a bubblegum-pink umbrella that reflects the colour of a long-gone neon sign on the Granville strip, a man shoots a glance backwards as he walks a woman across a rain-slicked street.
“That man on Granville Street was an usher at one of the movie theatres,” Herzog says. “He must have recognized me because I had seen him many times, which means he must have seen me many times. He must have been ‘There’s that big guy who takes pictures, and looked back at me.’ ”
Herzog didn’t stage his photographs: he didn’t know his subjects; he shot on the fly, often on the city’s gritty East Side, aiming for that moment right before they noticed the camera. Some of those who found themselves in his viewfinder, however, have gotten to know him as he’s become celebrated. Take, for example, Black Man Pender from 1958, where a dapper-looking father with a dog on a leash strolls through Vancouver’s Chinatown, his young daughter’s hand in his.
“Many, many people have sent me letters—I have a whole folder full of them,” Herzog says. “Like, for example, the black guy who is walking on Pender Street with the child and the dog. I got a letter from the sister of the girl, and she was very happy to find that picture because she didn’t have any other pictures of her dad and her sister.”
It’s the lifelong pursuit of such pure moments that keep Herzog shooting even today, although he admits that he’s moved to digital from film.
“A photographer is always most curious about his latest pictures—especially pictures that I haven’t seen printed 20 or 30 times,” he says. “I almost would like for people to see something different now, something new.”
And that, he suggests, may happen at some point in the future with another book. At the risk of adding to his already bothersome fame, Herzog reveals that Photographs doesn’t even begin to touch on the wealth of material that he’s sitting on.
“Now that the world has this book, something needs to come out to follow it sometime in the future, probably after I’m dead. I’d like to use some of my other colour pictures, and pictures from other places. For example, I’ve taken 30,000 black-and-white pictures in my lifetime.”
Displaying that sense of humour again, he then adds with a laugh: “Not all of them are good though—and that’s an understatement.”
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