This is an edited fusion of several conversations Fred Herzog had with Grant Arnold in August and September of 2006.
GRANT ARNOLD: When did you come to Canada?
FRED HERZOG: In 1952. I arrived by boat from Germany in the harbour of Montreal and then travelled by train to Toronto. I worked at several jobs in Toronto, a city I found seedy and unattractive, because I had not yet learned how to turn ugly scenes into beautiful pictures.
GA: Did your view of the world shift in that process?
FH: Yes and no. I’ve always been interested in geography and history, and my first encounter with Vancouver was in high school in 1944. My geography book had a picture of Vancouver in it and a quarter page of what Vancouver was about. It was lumber, fish, mining, the railroad terminal, the harbour and the shipping of grain. Because I had lived in land-bound southern Germany, I saw the world’s oceans as distant but exciting exotica. Vancouver offered a harbour and ships, and I signed on to the SS Cassiar there as a seaman the morning after I had arrived by train. This was May 1953; I was, as of then, a member of the Seamen’s International Union.
GA: You first took up photography in Germany?
FH: I bought a little scale focusing Kodak Retina I—all my friends had one; that’s why I chose that camera—for my annual hiking trips to the Alps. My first pictures—travels, landscapes, portraits and sports—have survived till today, but all the negatives were destroyed during the voyage from Germany. The ship took on water in a storm, flooding the hold containing the suitcase with my negatives.
GA: Where did you live in Germany?
FH: I lived in Stuttgart, but during the war, in 1943, my high school was moved out of the city. That’s why I’m still alive. Stuttgart was levelled, totally levelled. Just like Dresden and Hamburg, it was bombed flat. The phenomenon of a big city like that, and many of the people in it, being wiped out is beyond the imagination. My mother died in 1941, for lack of medical care. My father was away in the war effort until 1945, when he returned, only to die within a year. One of the things that bothered me about having no family was the total lack of pocket money. My schoolmates thought I was stingy. It would now be easy to laugh at that. I have not regretted leaving Germany, but I should admit that I left with the hope of adventure rather than dissatisfaction with the place I left behind.
The most important event on my arrival in Canada was an encounter on my first day in Toronto. I met a medical photographer, Ferro Marincowitz. He had lost the use of a leg at El Alamein, then joined the navy and worked on ships that went to Russia from Canada. Somewhere along the way he learned medical photography and was very good at it. He taught me—not formally, but he would talk and I would remember everything. I never went to school to learn photography—not a single day. What I wanted to know I learned from him, or from books and magazines. I came to Vancouver in 1953 and worked on ships for three years. On the ships I met a fellow from Berlin. Gerhard Blume was his name. He was a self-styled intellectual and understood the difference, or so he said, between capitalism and communism, but he didn’t like either. He had been a prisoner of war in Russia and whatever they say about the Russians being nasty to prisoners of war, he found it okay. He was self-taught; he knew literature—not only German literature but English, French, Italian, Russian, everything. He had a comprehensive mind, not only a memory for details but how philosophy enters into language, how language enters into literature, how the best novels are actually more real than reality, because the people who wrote them understand how the world functions. He steered me to books and historians, books on how the economy influences all aspects of society, science, religion and politics.
GA: What sort of books?
FH: Well, the usual Russian novels by Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev—who is a wonderful writer—and other ones that are less well known. He loved Flaubert. I read Madame Bovary twice, because I had trouble getting it—not the story about Emma, but Flaubert’s brittle literary objectivity. Eventually I understood it, and it had an effect on my photography.
GA: Were you reading American realists or people who described North American life? Theodore Dreiser?
FH: Yes, Dreiser, Steinbeck, Faulkner and, later, Updike. I enjoyed reading them. My favourite writer in those years was John Dos Passos, who wrote a wonderful book called Manhattan Transfer. That book was written in a way that could be matched up with my approach to photography.
GA: Did the kind of images you were making differ from what you had done in Germany right away, or did that come later?
FH: What I did in Toronto was not different from what I did in Germany, not really. In the early years in B.C., I took very few pictures. I worked on the boats, and when I came off the boats I rode away on my motorcycle. I bought a motorcycle at the end of 1953, and this was important to me psychologically. I wanted to be mobile; I liked the idea of exploring places. I took a camera along and made landscape and urban pictures, but they did not hint at what was to come.
My first good pictures in Canada were from my first roll of colour film in 1953, including the picture of the Marine Building in the fog with the CPR pier in the foreground [“CPR Pier and Marine Building,” 1953; see page 35] not just a beautiful picture, but an interesting picture. I had a few other ones like that early on. I intuitively knew composition, perhaps from looking at pictures. I had another friend from Berlin, Rudi Abraham, who was promoting modern photographic styles: European Realism, a somewhat formal kind of photography based on realism in daily life. In a way I haven’t departed very far from that.
GA: What photographers were you looking at then?
FH: I regularly bought Modern Photography, Popular Photography and Camera 35, which were American, and Colour Photography, which was British. When I had money I bought Leica, Prisma, both German, and various yearbooks, such as the U.S. Camera Yearbook. I have always found a happy balance between aesthetics and technique, as my photographs, both black and white and colour, should confirm.
As a hobby I have photographed hundreds of wild, living butterfly species on four continents, and technique is of key importance in scientific and nature photography. My present style of street photography was formed in spring 1957 with a bang—practically complete from day one.
In 1958, I saw The Americans by Robert Frank. This book blew me away. The easy elegance with which he captures the most telling gestures in passing has remained inimitable. My first encounter with my other hero—Walker Evans—occurred around 1962 at the home of medical photographer Cliff Freehe in Seattle. The breadth of his vision is only rivalled by the precision with which he nails con-tent and deep meaning; and he did most of this with rather clumsy field cameras not always equipped with the best optics.
GA: Your work draws attention to materialism in North American culture through images of cars…
FH: By abetting the consumption of needlessly large and powerful bloat-mobiles with high fuel consumption when such initiatives are manifestly contrary to human survival, North American governments betray their lack of concern for the future. We are all pawns in this game whether we like it or not. Having no automobile for most citizens would lead to non-participation in daily public life. Our best choice might be to try to fit into one of the really tiny cars, such as the Smart car. “But let’s see now, how much do I need to save for a Mercedes so I can look my four- car-garage neighbour in the eye?”
These contradictions of pretension as opposed to function do, however, have a useful aspect for me as a photographer. The promise of success and glamour on billboards, the fulfillment and pride of ownership, the lamentable decline at the hands of rust and age, and ultimately the frozen gesture of the has-been on the junk heap, have all been meat for my camera. Without that tension, the car’s history would only interest mechanics and city planners.
GA: These tensions involve more than the car…
FH: Yes, for instance radio and TV. The philosopher Max Picard described radio as the worst disaster to visit western civilization, as it fills the precious silence with noisy garbage that renders reflective thought impossible when you are anywhere near it. In addition to pulling the plug on civilization, both radio and TV have the potential to abet or undermine democracy. You know what the choice has been.
GA: The urban street became the main focus of your work around 1957?
FH: Having read books by [Lewis] Mumford, [Egon] Friedell, [Wolfgang] Koeppen, [Honoré de] Balzac, [John] Dos Passos and many others, the word “city” for me became more than the intersection of many roads. As early as 1956, I saw the city’s many manifestations in icons, archetypes and bipolar contrasts. I was both actor and flâneur, because I wanted to know what the city feels like. Another book comes to mind, Geoffrey Gorer’s The American People, a socio-psychological study. This book kicked off my own study of North American ideals: exotic re-interpretations of Christian concepts, personal empowerment via big trucks and guns as well as the better-known, more endearing traits.
When you have seen the city to the point where you think you’ve done it all, the horizon will suddenly sustain a crack and a new cycle of hitherto unseen phenomena will begin to form shadows on your film.
GA: Was consumerism more in your face here than Europe, or is that a myth?
FH: Well, it had fewer restraints. But generally, since the end of World War II, such initiatives are identical in the USA and Germany. In their quest to make Germany look sanitary and friendly, billboard advertising has yielded to flowerpots in every window. This is one of the reasons I don’t often go there. The photo-realist hopes to discover unseen treasures, picturesque disorder, over-the-top nasty disorder, naďve art by housewives and gardeners, decay of all descriptions and the multicoloured results of misdemeanour, if not crime. Germany (and Singapore) play poorly in these categories.
GA: In the 1950s and ’60s galleries rarely exhibited photography, so magazines and books would have been the primary way for you to see photographs.
FH: Magazines and books, yes. But there were also camera clubs. For a few years I was a member of Vancouver’s Lions Gate Camera Club. That’s where I met Rudi Abraham. Together we were innovative, perhaps impatient, but we were respected, even liked. Our message was: the twentieth century is not only about gnarled trees, swans and sunsets—look at the real world around you! Our influence was not lasting.
Making friends with Bud and Audrey Doray in 1960 was my first step into the art world. Their house was always open to artists. The talk and the music never died before midnight. Jack Shadbolt, Toni Onley, Roy Kiyooka, Glenn Toppings, Michael Morris, Claude Breeze, Mick Henry, Glenn Lewis, bill bisset, Christos Dikeakos, Herb Gilbert, David Orcutt, Iain Baxter, Nan Cheney, Werner Aellen, Leon Bibb, Al Sens, Gary Lee Nova and Bob Steele—who has been my most unflagging and energetic friend and supporter—and many others, were all there. I quickly received offers to give slide shows at the art school, the Arts Club, the Vancouver Art Gallery and many other venues.
Victor (Bud) Doray, who was one of the founders of Intermedia, was also a medical illustrator and later became my department head at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Biomedical Communications. I became the head of the Photo/Cine Division. While I worked there the staff grew from seven to sixty. We served all the larger hospitals in the city.
GA: Did you present your art photography primarily as slides?
FH: Almost always slides. I had a very demanding job and a family with children, and I often had to work extra hours. I just did not have the time to make really good large prints. Colour prints were expensive then, and problematic and not as permanent as now. Nevertheless I did exhibit prints. The most significant exhibition was curated by Alvin Balkind of the UBC Fine Arts Gallery in 1969. This was a three-man show called Extensions. The other participants were Robbert Flick and Jack Dale. The exhibition went on to the National Gallery, which sent it on a tour of various cities in Canada. I had thirty-six colour prints in the exhibition.
GA: In the 1950s and ’60s, art photography was almost exclusively black and white. Why did you choose to work with colour?
FH: Black and white and colour are equally difficult, but for average photo-realism, colour succeeds far more often. The reason is simple: realism with a dynamic content, such as people and action, does not afford us the time to place the main subject against a suitable background with the same speed that can be achieved in colour. As a result there are numerous failed efforts, as even a master such as Cartier-Bresson had to face and admit.
It was my goal from the start to show city vitality. My chosen viewpoints revealed so much fine detail that—I learned this early—black and white did not produce the expected result. Also, the amount of time required to read a colour photograph is shorter than for a similar black and white, and the length of time the average viewer spends looking at a picture is diminishing.
GA: In the ’60s, did you find that the art community in Vancouver accepted photographs on the same level as painting or sculpture?
FH: No different from now. You know, it is amazing the way photography burst upon the scene in the ’60s. It was quickly accepted by many artists and by curators like Alvin Balkind, who was then at the UBC Fine Arts Gallery. They were at the forefront of a kind of modernism that accepted photography as an important art. Artists like Jack Shadbolt, Roy Kiyooka, Bob Steele and Jim Breukelman, who was teaching at the Vancouver School of Art, invited me to the school to show my work. Jim was the first person to buy one of my prints, in 1970.
GA: Were they as interested in your images of the street as your other work?
FH: They took note of the innovative aspects of the way I saw the city. The pictures they liked were actually the more formal compositions, using colour in a distinctive and self-conscious way. They also liked my pictures of people, but they preferred the more formal sort of thing. They were not so interested in my pictures of the harbour, and they were not interested in my pictures of motorcars and things like that. Their orientation was more out of the corner of painting. Very often remarks were made as to how those pictures paralleled certain developments in impressionism and expressionism and cubism and things like that—this looks like a Miró or a Matisse, et cetera.
GA: Did this change in the late 1960s, with developments such as Intermedia?
FH: Well photography, as I said before, was already taken seriously. But you know, even when I was teaching photography from 1968 until 1973 or ’74 at Simon Fraser University and UBC, I did not use many of my pictures of the city in my teaching. They were seen as too commonplace, or they weren’t understood or sought after. I wanted to focus on the student work and so curbed the urge to show my own stuff.
GA: There’s a difference in the way we look at your works now, as prints placed on the wall that we can look at for as long as we want. In your slide shows there was a captive audience and a prescribed order for the images.
FH: I did not show the slides for very long at any given time, because they fade and they often had to be refocused because they would pop with the heat of the projector lamp.
GA: Do you find prints to be a more satisfactory way of looking at these images? Or do you miss the control you had over sequencing and so on in the slide shows?
FH: The attraction of slide shows diminished. Few people now sit still in a darkened room. Prints, if big enough, would always have been preferred. Of course, I tried to make some income from slides. Most of the money I made was from stock agencies and book publishers. The ’75 book, The City of Vancouver, earned me $5,000 in the first printing. But its reproduction quality was uneven, and the captions were useless or misleading. I enjoyed having a job that was totally unrelated to the photography I did for myself, because it kept my interest alive. I’ve taken photographs in colour for fifty-five years, and I’m still doing it with considerable motivation.
GA: Did digital technology allow you to make the first satisfactory prints of your colour images?
FH: Digital photography is now a serious method. In some aspects it comes close to traditional methods, in others it exceeds them. As it is certain to improve steadily it will be the way of the future. Nevertheless traditional film-based photography still has a lot of life in it. To equal the ease with which I still get good results with film-based cameras, I would have to learn a great deal. I need the time for more important work.
My prints, however, are made digitally. No other method can compete. My fifty- to fifty-five-year old slides could not have yielded good colour and contrast with optical printing. Many have faded, contracted fungus or been scratched. I have directly supervised most of the final digital work, making as many proof prints as required. The temptation to overcompensate for colour loss in old slides has to be constantly fought. Alterations beyond that are not permissible. In resolution, the best scans come close to the best optical prints. More importantly, they permit far better colour, tonal range and contrast control. Older lenses had fall-off in the corners of the image, which is difficult to correct via the optical method. To eliminate the problem digitally takes mere seconds. Dust and scratches presented huge problems in the past. Not so in digital work.
Finally, the colour dyes in sensitized paper and inkjet prints have been improved to the point where a print life of a hundred years or more is claimed by most manufacturers.
GA: Do you see any relationships between your approach to making photographs and those of the subsequent generations of Vancouver photographers, whose work is informed by conceptual art?
FH: Photoconceptualism has opened doors for other work, including mine. I am grateful for that. There are a number of photoconceptualists I admire. I worked with Iain Baxter and liked his flood of ingenious ideas, which carried me along with them. His photographs were almost like an afterthought, technically, although I also remember some well-crafted works.
I admire the work of Roy Arden, especially his early colour images of store windows and kinesics. Also Jeff Wall, who has built his reputation on a unique conceptual approach to realism. Christos Dikeakos’s images have for thirty-seven years been based on concepts formed around issues arising from a rapidly developing civilization, not so different from what I am doing myself, but more stringently bound up with a conceptual/intellectual framework.
To sum up my work, it is conceptualized from inside out rather than from outside in. While the nature of my realism may not be evident in a single image, the sum total of a larger body of work will show clearly where I am coming from.
Grant Arnold, Aug 15, 2006Read more about Grant Arnold >>