In an interview published in this book, Fred Herzog responds to Grant Arnold, who is currently the first Audain Curator of British Columbia Art at the Vancouver Art Gallery, by explaining what he looks for in a cityscape: The photo-realist hopes to discover unseen treasures, picturesque disorder, over-the-top nasty disorder, naïve art by housewives and gardeners, decay of all descriptions and the multicoloured results of misdemeanour, if not crime. The statement is meaningful given what we learn of Herzogs taste in, and knowledge of, literature-particularly the works of Gustave Flaubert-and its influence on his art. Arguably the first modern novelist, Flaubert deployed an innovative literary vocabulary for conveying the feel of the city-as it sounded, smelled, and looked to an ordinary passer-by. Flaubert strove to represent the new metropolitan-diverse, exciting, even dizzying-character of Paris. The familiar figure of the flâneur, whose view is no longer omniscient but realistically circumscribed in Flauberts novels, takes on a new aspect in Herzogs work; the endlessly curious, perspicacious observer of urban life is now able to communicate his melancholy and occasionally acerbic vision of modernisms foibles by means of visual artifacts.
Like the sensory frame of Flauberts flâneur, Herzogs photos show us only what the normal eye can see. In his essay on Herzogs Vancouver photographs, Grant Arnold writes that the angle of view and distance from the depicted subject in Herzogs photographs almost always replicate those of an upright person. Herzog strives to depict things the way he perceived them at the moment the shutter was tripped. The realism of these photos allows us to experience what the flâneur-photographer experienced of Vancouver in the 50s and 60s. It is a city that is both ugly and beautiful, with its commercial districts made lively and colourful by profusions of signs and lights, brimming with human activity, but aesthetically and culturally at a low point, and with many of its public spaces in a state of neglect and decay. Through these images, writes Grant Arnold, we can, perhaps, discern a consciousness . . . that has passed from a state of intoxication with the vitality of the crowd into one of skeptical enmity, directed not towards the crowd itself but towards the continual underwriting of consumption as the sublime object of modern culture.
Fred Herzog was born in 1930, in Stuttgart, Germany. Although removed along with other students to the safety of the countryside during WWII, he was a mere adolescent when he witnessed the utter destruction of Stuttgart by Allied bombing. He arrived in Vancouver in 1953, found work on a ship, and befriended another German, a self-styled intellectual from Berlin (Gerhad Blume), who introduced him to the works of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Flaubert. In the interview, he tells Arnold that he has also read Lewis Mumford, Egon Friedell, Wolfgang Koeppen, John Dos Passos, and Geoffrey Gorer. Herzog is an articulate man with a philosophical turn of mind. His reflections on the ways that literature has informed his work make the interview a pleasure to read.
The essay by Grant Arnold is a well-written, literary, and erudite analysis that offers frequent allusions to Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, who is, according to Arnold, perhaps the most astute critic of photography during the early twentieth century. Some readers will find it overly dense and academic in places. For those who enjoy it, I recommend Robert Atlers Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel, a book that is bound to shed additional light on the more literary portions of the essay. Michael Turners piece is written in a similar vein, and is likewise worth reading, no least for its historical scope of Vancouvers evolution.
Finally, we come to the unique allure of the photos themselves. I have never encountered such a painterly command of street scenes. Unlike nature photography, urban photography has traditionally focused on specific subjects and their arrangement to the exclusion of other aesthetic considerations, mainly colour. Herzogs pictures still aim to tell a story, but what makes them magnificent are the ochres and pastels, the found harmonies and contrasts of colours that look almost too beautiful for the contexts in these photos. And yet it is colour-its sumptuous presence-that transforms these scenes unequivocally into art. Olga Stein
(Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada