Fred Herzog

One of the shows I went to a while ago but never got around to reviewing was
Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour which was the inaugural show by the Positive View Foundation at Somerset House over the Christmas period. In part I didn’t review it because I wasn’t at all convinced by it as a show; it seemed a particularly sloppy piece of curating, a rag-bag of colour photography around a less than threadbare conceit. But among the work by 15 photographers on show, there was some of particular interest, particularly by Saul Leiter, Helen Levitt, Alex Webb and someone rather less well-known to me, Fred Herzog.

Herzog was born in 1930 in Germany, where he grew up and life was pretty tough during the war and afterwards. In 1952, having become a photographer, he emigrated to Canada, settling shortly afterwards in Toronto, where he worked as a medical photographer. In his spare time he walked the city taking pictures, using Kodachrome. Although his work was included in a few mainly group shows in Toronto over the years, it was only in 2008 following a show at the Equinox Gallery the previous year that it really began to reach a wider audience around the world.

Part of the reason it didn’t become known earlier was technical. It was difficult – and expensive – to make good prints from Kodachrome, so it was hard for him to show his work. Cibachrome was the first really practical direct printmaking process from slides, and it wasn’t ideal with its high contrast added to the already high contrast of Kodachrome favouring extreme impact at the expense of subtlety. Getting truly good prints needed expensive masking or laser scanning, and it was only with the advent of high quality inkjet printing from digital scans that making good and decently archival prints from Kodachrome became reasonably cheap. And it is these inkjet prints that have made Herzog’s work available to a wider audience.

Herzog’s work interests me both because of the subjects he took but also because it shows that – like I think ther work of many other photographers – there was interesting work in colour before colour was discovered by the art photography industry in the 1970s and 80s.  Photographers who were using colour not because it was saleable and could be shown in museums and galleries, but because of their interest in recording life in colour. We now know of Herzog, but I’m sure he is the iceberg tip.

There is also an individuality about his work. Unlike that of another recently discovered ‘unknown’ photographer I don’t look at his pictures and immediately think of the work that other photographers had made earlier and disseminated widely. Herzog was making his own history, not just repeating – however well – what he had appreciated in the work of others.

You can read more about him – and about the controversy that arouse over his views about the Nazi holocaust in a couple of features, Marsha Lederman’s The collision: Fred Herzog, the Holocaust and me  in the Vancouver Globe and Mail, and Timothy Tailor’s The Way Things Are: Fred Herzog’s Art of Observation in Canadian Art.

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