INTERVIEW: Fred Herzog – “In His Own Words” (excerpts)

Man with Bandage, 1968

Fred Herzog In His Own Words, from interviews with John Mackie of the Vancouver Sun in June, 2005, and January, 2007

On Photography

“Photographic finesse has its place, but it can also get in the way. I was trying to show vitality. The pictures are about content, and more content. And if there is no content, take no picture.”

“It’s exactly the other way around now. ‘Okay I’m going to take my clothes off, and I’m going to stand there in the nude, and I’m going to try and look lonely or profound.'”

“Content cannot be manufactured, in my opinion. That which I can find is better than that which you can make. That which we find, the work and the use of the people out there, it’s natural, that’s what ordinary people do, that interests me.”

“I take pride in saying these are all how we looked, not how we wanted to look, or staged. You cannot stage pictures. That is something I have many many times defended. People say ‘Well you can stage that.’ I say ‘No you cannot, and I can prove it to you.’ Many times over I’ve taken a second shot after [some] kids have seen me, and nothing. It’s a different picture.”

“I started taking pictures in 1950. I went with a small youth group, every summer we went to the Alps and did hiking. They all had cameras so I had a camera. It was called the Kodak Retina I. It didn’t even have a rangefinder, it had a peephole viewfinder which was worse than you get on these throwaway cameras now. But I used it and I got good pictures with it.”

“The pictures I took in Germany were all lost on the ship when I came over here, because it was an old rust-bucket that nearly sank in the Atlantic. It took on water, all my baggage was floating in water and all the negatives were destroyed in the salt water. I tried to wash it, it couldn’t be washed.”

“In Canada the first good pictures I took were black and white photos of the ship pulling up in the St. Lawrence River and the towers of Montreal [in 1952]. I have got pictures of those German immigrants. They all had cameras and they kept them in their leather ever-ready cases with the flaps discreetly opened. They all wore suits and ties. A lot of them became successful and became importers. But here I have a picture of them on the ship. It’s a little bit like The Steerage by Steichen, but not quite. I never thought of printing them, but I have them.”

“In 1957 I became a medical photographer, and almost at the same time I became a serious documentary photographer. The reason I chose documentary photography — I didn’t even know that word — [was] I had great fun walking around the old streets of Vancouver, looking at the second-hand stores, the people and the signs. To me, that was a kind of vitality that spoke to me directly.”

“In that, I think I was really different. in those days I didn’t think of it that way. But what we know now is that nobody has done that, not even in small bodies of work. Nobody has done that. Before that [it was] buildings or swans or babies, sunsets or landscapes or barns with yellow tulips. I tell you nobody did that. It’s only now that that hits home.”

“Nobody did that even in the U.S.A. I have often looked at American yearbooks and things, the American Photography color yearbook, that was a big thing, I bought those. But they’re full of pretty pictures of women, some of them naked, some of them beautiful. Even the ones who are not naked look beautiful to me. Perhaps it’s my age. But there was no street photography. None done. And I did that, and I did it with a passion, and I did it with variety. You can see that now in the pictures.”

On why so many of his photos feature neon signs

“Oh, neon signs. This is one of the greatest use of technology, to make people happy. When you went to town in Vancouver in the 1950s, you had the experience of going to town. That’s gone. Now you have to look for parking, have park underground, which takes you almost as long as eating your dinner.”

“In those days we were convivial. That means we can live together. That has gone away. We are no longer convivial. We’re ‘You’re better than me,’ and ‘I’m better than him,’ and ‘I’m going to kick butt on him.'”

On his photo of the Neon jungle at Hastings and Carrall in 1958

“I don’t take credit for it looking like this. What I can’t believe is that there are no good pictures of that. That was a fabulous strip. I only took one picture. Not two or three for safety – I had no money for that. So I had to know exactly how to expose it, take one picture, and hope it doesn’t get lost in the mail. And some got lost in the mail. I had to send [the Kodachrome film] to Kodak in another part of North America. They could get lost and they did get lost.”

“When I see that now, I only have one slide of this. I think ‘How the hell did I not find the money to take two?’ Honestly, it was a question of eating, in those days. In those days, I put everything into photography, to the point where people said ‘This guy’s a neurotic.’”

On the White Lunch Cafe’s neon sign

“The White Lunch was an institution. I love things like that. The swirl of steam over the cup is pure genius. This is one of the better neon signs around. I’d go to the White Lunch. I can tell you what I ate there: braised sirloin tips and a custard pudding with a little bit of rice in the bottom.”

“Everything that’s uninteresting I remember faultlessly. But if it was my mother’s birthday, I’d have to think for awhile or look at a notebook. But this is how we are, how we are made.”

 

Bogner’s Grocery, 1960

On his 1960 photo of Bogner’s Grocery, which is literally covered in signs

“That was off Oak street. The signs are a very very important pictorial part of the American city. I won’t even say pictorial, an important cultural part of the American city. If you take the Coca-Cola and other signs away from America downtown, you have nothing. Maybe some interesting architecture, but not very much.”

“The neon signs and the soft drink signs, the cigarette ads and the billboards and the posters and the grafitti and collages of torn-off posters, all that contributes to make the city a place where art actually happens. That kind of casual art, overlapping posters, can be very very interesting. Those posters illustrate the city even if people are not there.”

“A store like this was a gem. You cannot fake that. Look how casually they nailed this big sign over the small one. The Coca-Cola man says ‘we’ve got another big sign,’ and the person who owns the store says ‘well put it up.’”

On his love of old Coca-Cola signs

“Coca-Cola signs, see, nobody photographed Coca-Cola signs. I did. I actually photographed them to show how the city looks bad without them. And they took those down, of course. They have become collectors items.”

“I’m not surprised, because they are beautiful. Embossed on metal, they are beautiful. I wish I had some of them, but I never stole them. Crazy stuff. If you had this Santa Claus with a Pepsi sign now, it would be worth $500. I ate a meal for 25 cents at the same shop. If I had asked for that they would have said come back in a week and you can have both of them.”

“These are to me an incredibly pictorial aspect. [He points to a photo of an old building with some signs.] Without that it could have been taken in the Ukraine. But with that, it’s America. I call Canada America, I’m talking about North America. I don’t differentiate that much.”

On shooting in colour, at a time when all serious art photography was done in black and white

“First of all when you do black and white all have is the basic resource, a negative. That needs a lot of dancing around the darkroom and time and patience and energy. You should ideally be a man of leisure, an English gentleman. And a lot of English gentlemen did serious and beautiful photography.

“But I didn’t have time for that. That’s one reason [I did colour slides]. I’d get 36 slides back, beautiful, finish.””

 

New Pontiac, 1957

On Kodachrome slides

“Kodachrome was the best film and the most reliable development, but it was far from reliable. I was so frustrated at times I sent film to Palo Alto or to Rochester, just to get them developed right. And of course that entailed an extremely long wait. You’d take the pictures today and they would come back in two weeks or something.”

“But Kodachrome was the best film. I have to thank Kodak for making that product. Without that product, we would not have the pictures. Pictures that were taken on other films have suffered more than Kodachrome. Kodachrome was thought to last 50 years, and it has.””

On his awareness of what he was doing

“I was aware I was taking art. That’s the conceit of young people. I knew that what I am doing is not only unique, but that someday I’m going to unpack that and shock people with it. And that was 50 years ago. It’s sort of a fairy tale story, but that’s exactly how it’s beginning to play out.”

“I am not blaming people for it not happening until now, because without digital I could not have done it. [He takes out a photo of Nelson and Howe.] This picture was so badly damaged by fungus. By traditional methods you would have said ‘Sorry I can’t print that.’ Well we cleaned that up just like that and it made a beautiful photograph. The colour is beautiful, the detail is excellent.”

On street photography and digital technology

“Timing in photography is almost everything. You have to pay attention to where the light comes from, you have to pay attention to your background. If your background is too loud, or makes too much of itself…that’s the problem of the photographic process. It records everything that’s in the viewfinder, whether it’s important or not.”

“All the good pictures that didn’t turn out good, it’s because of the background or because the light comes from one side or some other technical glitch. That’s the grace of these modern digital cameras. First of all everything that can go wrong is taken care of automatically. A person who’s completely ignorant of the photographic process [can take [photos].”

“And I say that respectfully. You don’t have to know anything, you press the button and you get a beautiful picture. That’s how it works out now. This is enormous progress. Because of that you’ll see now a flood of good pictures which we never dreamed we would see. I already get them in the e-mail.”

 

Foot of Main, 1968

On his photos of second hand stores

“I call them a microcosm of American culture, because that’s exactly what it is, of all the things we want to have. All the things we need to have, and all the things we’d love to have wind up in second hand shops in that kind of condensed fashion.

“This [photo of a second hand store window] is an art piece. I’m not saying my picture is an art piece. But if you could freeze that window and carry it into an art gallery, you could show that in New York and ask $50,000 for it. And you’d get it. And they’d say ‘Why didn’t I know about it? Now I have to pay $100,000, because that guy wants to sell it to me for $100,000.’

“That’s how much that store would be worth if you could have preserved it and transported it to New York as is, authentically. To have a photograph of that is the next best thing. And who else would have thought of taking that then?””

His photo of the U.R. Next Barber Shop

“That was the best barber shop of all times. It was also the first [photo I took]. I couldn’t improve on it. Look at this, it’s almost like a Hollywood movie set, it’s beyond belief.”

On his shot a family walking down Robson street beside the International Cafe

“I used to eat there many times. I had the goulash, very very good. An Austrian woman ran that. I have a picture of that [block] as it looks now, and it looks like a suburb of Shanghai. It’s not the same anymore.”

On his shot Hastings Street at Columbia, 1958

“I had a 35 millimetre camera which had bellows on it, and I could put a view cam on it from a big camera. It gave me that kind of long perspective, a telephoto perspective.”

On his photo of Granville and Smithe in 1959

“If you go to this spot on Granville street, all you see is trees. That’s gone. Everything that had teeth. This is what bothers me about the city. Everything that had interest or teeth or contradiction or American blaring culture which makes our cities interesting. Take that away and it’s all grey. That all has been taken away. So now we go to Granville street, it almost looks like an East German slum. It’s not nice.”

 

Paris Cafe, 1959

On how modern digital technology has made it possible for him to mount a show like this

“[That photo] is from the 60s. Look at how that can be resurrected through the digital method. If I had had to do a show then, I simply could not have afforded it, it would have cost 10 times as much and it wouldn’t have been as good.

“All the factors that lead to a good show have come together now. At my age, 76, perhaps it would have been nice to have that at age 60 or so. But I’m glad, I’m happy, I’m proud. I think actually it’s better it’s now, because I think it would have changed my life [to have success earlier]. Instead of taking pictures I would have sat around at parties.

“This has been a coincidence if things. One is that Kathleen [Bartels] who is directing the Vancouver Art Gallery wants this sort of thing. The other thing is that it’s technically possible now to make them to a budget, and to make them very good. Whether a picture was taken in the 50s or now makes no difference.”

On how many photos he took and where they were shown

“I have 80,000 slides. I don’t have them all anymore. Furthermore many of these slides don’t play in this kind of thing. They were done for very different reasons. I’ve got lots of pictures of motorcycle races and of butterflies and God knows what else. I’ve made 28,000 negatives. I counted them, I figured it out, per page of 36 exposures.

“I had many many slide shows, probably 80 or 100. But I did not have that many print shows.

“These [images] would have disappeared if we had not done this show. I’ve even said to my wife, ‘If you have to dump those, don’t dump them all on the same day.’ Nobody wanted them. It’s colour. I offered them to the National Gallery, and they said ‘Sorry we only do black and white.’ I enquired, that was the early 80s.”

His reaction to the National Gallery turning him down

“A person like me doesn’t get pissed off. I get tense, and I get nervous, and I am not Fearless Fred, as some people say. I can be daunted, but I don’t get angry that quickly. There’s a Spanish proverb, ‘He who gets angry will destroy himself.’ That’s a good one. I know it in Spanish, but not this morning, I need more coffee.”

On a 1960 photo featuring two kids play fighting over bubblegum

“Isn’t that a fun picture? I have two pictures of that. This one I took it at full aperture, on ISO 10 film. Do you know what that means? Films now have ISO 800 or even more, 1600. This was so slow, I had to shoot the picture at full aperture, F2, and a tenth of a second. And that’s how it turns out, and it’s good.

“I said to them, ‘I’m not sure if I got this picture of you guys, could you do it for me again?’ And of course, it’s so stiff and acted, it has no value at all. You couldn’t even show it to your own mother.

That picture has the authenticity of observed life. To me that is the key to success in photography.

“There are people that don’t think that way. Jeff Wall is a friend, and he thinks that what he enacts is better than what other people find. I don’t want to rock the boat, but it’s not for me. His is a new stage in art. It’s a little bit like film is compared to history. It’s valid, I’m not challenging it. When I make a remark like ‘what you find is more interesting than what you can make,’ I mean it, but I don’t mean it in such a way that it [precludes] other people from producing art on different levels.

On his love of old neighbourhoods like Chinatown and Strathcona

“Oh, Strathcona. Strathcona is the archetype of an intact neighbourhood. There have been changes, but Strathcona has remained at least 60 percent of what it used to be. The lanes are interesting, the houses are interesting, the inhabitants are interesting. I know two or three.”

 

Arthur Murray, 1960

On his photo of commercial signs at Carrall and Hastings in 1968

“Signs in this context expressed the vitality of a city. You notice that now the city has no signs, the vitality is no longer visible. It may be in the dining room or the kitchen or the bedroom, but not in the city.”

On going through his files for the Vancouver Art Gallery show

“I look back into my files and see if there is anything I want to pull out. Many of the pictures that are now in the show were originally in a discard file, because some of them were not perfectly sharp. Some just weren’t important then, because it looked like ordinary [life], this is how the city looked. So now pictures I had practically forgotten, have been fished out and used.

“I have not had a holiday in the last four years, because I have worked 10 hours a day on this show. It’s a lot of work, an unbelievable amount of work to make those scans, to approve the proofs, to print them, to reprint them if they’re not right. And to learn how to do it.

“All that has taken four years of my old life. But it has also in a way revived me. You could die of boredom, let’s face it. And this prevented that outright.”

On suddenly being the toast of the town, after 50 years of photography

“It’s wonderful. Let’s face it, we don’t want to live under a log. All of a sudden I have found recognition for something…it’s a funny thing. Artists have always liked these pictures, but they haven’t had the power to say he should be in the art gallery. Also they thought maybe painting may be better. People who have the highest rank in painting like my pictures but none of them came quite out and said ‘I’m going to talk to people at the Art Gallery, maybe you should have [a show] down there.’ It could have been done.

“But I was never bitter about it. In the U.S. people who did [similar photography] in the 1970s like Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld and Joel Meyerowitz, William Eggleston…they had done stuff like that and it got into the Museum of Modern Art and other similar museums. They had the funds and the grants and the money, and also the spirit that this can be used as art. In Canada, in this respect, we were hanging a little bit behind. We just did not have major art gallery shows of photography. Maybe in the east, but sometimes there were things we couldn’t do here in the west.”

On how his photo of a male mannequin’s upper torso in a suit, a measuring tape casually draped around its shoulders, reflects “the quiet charm which many other cities do not have”

“If I go to Berlin and look for that I will not find it, because these people are so uniformly educated and sophisticated and super clean, they don’t want stuff like that. They would probably parade in front of the shop and say ‘Hey guy, get mod! Get mod, clean up your act! Put something modern [in the window], we don’t want to look like a bunch of lumpy hicks from Russia!’

“This was on Commercial Drive. This is a wonderful thing. Here is a craftsman who has not studied art in London. Here is a craftsman who knew how to make a suit. He knew nothing else, but he thought that this would suck them people in. And I agree with him, it probably did. And I respect him, I’m not trying to laugh at his effort. I really want to say, ‘Hey guy, I respect you for the love that you bring to your craft. I don’t expect you to compete with Andy Warhol, I want you to make something that’s even better. But don’t get an education to do it.”

On his photo of a car racing across the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks on the waterfront, just ahead of an oncoming train

“Isn’t that lovely, the train coming, the car crossing just in time. I knew two people who died [in train/car crashes], two good acquaintances of mine, one a friend. I was in the fire department [in Germany] and our fire chief got killed just like that. Not in Vancouver, in my hometown in Germany.

“It was such a tragedy. He was also a sportsman, he was a German master in some kind of sport. But he created such a tragedy…they prevented his wife from jumping into the grave. He did just that, crossing the tracks in front of a fast-moving train, on his motorcycle yet. How he could do that? But you know what it is? Young people are so driven by testosterone, they’re full up to here with testosterone, and they will take unbelievable chances because they think they are specially protected.

“There have been times in my life when I may have been somewhat like this, but never so over the top that I would introduce myself as I’m Fred, I’m a type-A personality. Not that.”

 

Jackpot, 1961

On his photo of a dapper black man walking in Chinatown in 1962 with his daughter and dog

“I presume he was an employee of the CNR. He had his day off and went walking here with his daughter, dressed up beautifully. When I dressed up like that I looked like a bricklayer on Sunday, but he can pull it off with style.

On his photo of the art deco Marine Building and a decrepit rooming house

“That’s a treasure now, to see a picture like that. Not to have the damn thing around and catch mice at night, but to have a picture of that, because that is how the city looked in those days. [The Marine Building] was a state of the art building in the 1930s, and you have the Elysium Cleaners around the corner. This is a real timepiece. That’s a nice catch.”

On his Vancouver Flaneur photo of a dapper, slightly ominous man in a fedora and suit watching Granville street from a doorway”

“It’s simple and has a power. That’s my favourite shot for the cover [of the exhibition catalogue] because it’s simple, it has a power and it’s simple. [He looks like] a rent collector. He makes like he was part of a powerful group of people. If you had talked to him he would have spoken with a deep voice and sort of nodded his head to say ‘you’re half-right, but get lost.’”

On his 1960 photo The Joke, of two friends sharing a laugh at Carrall and Hastings

“I like this picture. It’s called the Joke, and it isn’t [technically] sharp. But look at the fun these guys are having: he’s patting him on the belly, saying ‘What about that now, guy?’ And he breaks up laughing. Isn’t that wonderful? That shows a warmth, the way people used to be out in the city. It said ‘This is our city,’ that’s the kind of venue where we could be ourselves and have enjoyment and meet friends.

“It’s not like that now. There’s an atmosphere of fear here, of dereliction, of drugs. It’s just awful. And we’ve made it that way, nobody can say that just happened. We made it that.”

On taking on-the-fly photos of people on the street, without asking their permission

“People say ‘Did you have a release?’ Well, you cannot take pictures of living people looking like living people with a release. You could ask for that afterwards, and I’ve done that.”

On his photo of a young girl at the PNE in 1960

“I even like her. If she had lived across the hall, something would have happened. There is an archetypal North American personality here which grips me. I have such love and sympathy for her, because she went out at night. Look how she’s prettied up. She came here and said ‘I’m going to hit the town, in my own modest way.’ She has both a presence and a slight sense of abandonment. The way she has her cigarette, she’s got style. She is not one of the types you would say is a film star, but I’d like to use her in a movie.

On his Jackpot photo of gamblers at the PNE in 1961

“The jackpot is for 25 cents. Look at the size of the coin. You’d think she had won 250 grand. But there’s five cents, and there’s five cents and there’s 10 cents. It’s not big money.”

 

ASX CHANNEL: FRED HERZOG

(All rights reserved. Text and Images @ Fred Herzog Estate)

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