Urban Landscapes: Fred Herzog
By Melissa Montgomery
Robson Street, 1957 by Fred Herzog
Fred Herzog was born in 1930 Stuttgart, Germany. Growing up in World War II, he witnessed the total and complete destruction of his home city. His high school was evacuated to the country during the war, which saved his life. Both his parents died during and after the war- his mother from lack of medical care due to typhoid in 1941 and his father from cancer just after the war ended. As a young child Fred had his first camera, a Kodak, and he began taking rural- based landscape photographs while on holiday with his family. Little did he know that he would grow up to be a very well known urban landscape photographer – another continent away.
Fred had seen a picture of Vancouver British Columbia in a school textbook and was intrigued by the combination of forest and ocean. It was quite different than what he was used to living in landlocked Germany. After both his parents died, he signed on to the seaman’s International Union. He wanted to experience adventure and leave behind the sadness of his destroyed home country.
He came to Vancouver BC in 1953. He was drawn to the open spaces he had seen in that textbook when he was in school: the wilderness and the vast expanse of the sea. He did not take any photographs during the first few years he was in Vancouver. When he had money he bought books about photography and photographers. He bought colour film and began to take photographs of the landscape around him; the shops, the streets, the stores, and the people.
He knew he had an intuitive feeling for composition that could not be taught- and Fred was always confident that he had both artistic vision and technique. In 1958 Fred saw the book, “The Americans” by Robert Frank. He was greatly influenced by Robert’s stark and vivid portrayal of working class America.
In 1961, encouraged by a friend, Fred began to work as a medical photographer at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver BC. He continued to take his urban landscapes on weekends. Colour film and developing was expensive so Fred would only take maximum one photograph of a subject or location. Fred used slide film to take photos which turned out to be a stroke of genius, since very few photographers were using slide film and also because it freed him from the burden of developing his own work- often costly and time consuming. Today the colour captured in the colour slide film he used take us back to that time prior when we look at a Fred Herzog photograph. The photographs have a vibrant quality to them; it’s as if we are looking into a crystal ball pointed backwards in time.
By 1960, Fred was a member in the Loins Gate Camera Club and was invited to present his first solo slide shows at the Vancouver Art gallery and the Arts Club. It is interesting to note that Fred did not sell a print until 1970. All this time he was working his day job, raising a family and doing his photographic slides in his spare time. Photography was now being taken seriously as an art form and Fred began to teach at Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia.
Fred’s work today stills sells online and he is well known internationally as a photographic artist. His book, “The City of Vancouver” sold and continues to sell well today. Fred captured the urban landscape of Vancouver British Columbia when it was on the brink of becoming the thriving metropolitan city it is today. Many of the houses, neon signs and street corners have been irrevocably changed or all gone altogether. Even people who are not from Vancouver originally can look at his photographs and imagine themselves there at that brief, beautiful neon period in time.