Fred Herzog’s Photographs, a collection of early color work from 1950s and 60s Vancouver, points to the possibility of irony and entropy in nearly any scene — but especially the human scene. Herzog’s images, taken on Kodachrome film, document vernacular street life: automobiles, passers-by, swarms of advertisements, and all the accumulated architecture and detritus of urban life. The focus seems to be on the idiosyncratic rather than the archetypal, however, forming a view that is as much the photographer’s as it is one of a particular time or place. The result rests somewhere between the feeling of a Norman Rockwell painting and a Charles Bukowski poem.
Given the brilliance and saturation of the reproductions in Photographs, the only better way to view these images might be with a projector and the original slides themselves. The intensity of the reds, especially, parallels and heightens the weirdly cinematic irony and humor captured in the images. Herzog’s captions further draw out the absurdities of coincidence captured in his images, such as “Westend Galaxy, 1960,” “Winner Café, Portland 1959,” or “True Story, 1959.” The images tell stories of ironic coincidence and juxtapositions. The compositions are not so much created as discovered, pinpointed and magnified by the incidental combinations of color or repetition. The 192-page volume is rich with such images, and the photographs create a feeling greater in immediate excitement than historical novelty.
For example, in “Blue Car, Strathcona, 1967,” the hue of the wrecked car in the foreground echoes that of the sky over the buildings and mountains in the landscape behind it, as if a chunk of atmosphere had fallen to the ground to shatter and rust on the city’s outskirts. The immediate, simple, unalterable facts of sky, wrecked car, and landscape are combined in a way that transcends any typical or expected meaning. Herzog seems to have moved through the landscape and crowds in search of such moments, waiting for the perfect alignments of color and meaning. As a representative body of the pioneering work of color photography, Herzog’s images attest to the medium’s ability to revise and re-envision how one can take from the immediate, surrounding world an instant symbol of a long, living, and not-so-straightforward history. —NICHOLAS CHIARELLA