Born in Germany, Fred Herzog came to Vancouver in 1953 and worked as a medical photographer from 1957 to 1990.
Herzog worked as a seaman for Union Steamships when he first arrived in Vancouver, and credits the long voyages to Alaska for completing his education (he would read books to while away the hours). He first picked up a camera in 1950, and in Canada was encouraged by his friend Ferro Marincowitz to take up medical photography. He volunteered at hospitals, living off his savings from the ships, but eventually landed a job at St. Paul’s Hospital and then UBC, where he worked from 1961 to 1990. Since then, he has produced a substantial body of photographs, taking urban life in Vancouver – second-hand shops, vacant lots, neon signage and the crowds of people who have populated the city’s streets over the past fifty years – as his primary subject. Herzog has self-consciously drawn upon documentary traditions in photography while incorporating something of an outsider’s idiosyncratic sensitivity to a new environment into his work. Within his images, bodily gesture, the detritus of consumer culture and the architecture of the street take on a heightened resonance, as the impact of modernity becomes visible in the everyday life of the city.
Almost all of Herzog’s work was produced on Kodachrome, a colour slide film that was difficult to work with in a spontaneous fashion. In retrospect, shooting in colour was a brilliant idea: the colour on those old Kodachrome transparencies is amazingly rich, like a photographic version of Technicolor movies. Herzog’s use of colour was unusual in the 1950s and 60s, a time when art photography was almost exclusively associated with black and white imagery. In this respect, his photographs can be seen as a pre-figuration of the “New Colour” of photographers such as Stephen Shore and William Eggleston, who both received widespread acclaim in the 1970s, and the work of contemporary photographers such as Jeff Wall, Roy Arden, Arni Haraldsson, and Christos Dikeakos.
Fred Herzog’s photos offer a rare, authentic picture of the city. That city is a city of second-hand stores, corner groceries and the working port that is incredibly vibrant, colourful, a bit chaotic, and a little rough around the edges. His photos evoke strong emotions in people who were around in the 1950s and 1960s, and are a revelation to those who were not.