Fred Herzog, Black Man Pender, 1958. Courtesy of The Estate of Fred Herzog and Equinox Gallery, Vancouver © The Estate of Fred Herzog, 2020.

Fred Herzog: Photographing Yesterday Past

by Tom Hsu


Looking through photographs by Fred Herzog, it is clear that the city of Vancouver was his principal subject. He shows us what the city once was and will never be again.

After immigrating to Canada in 1952 from Germany, Herzog made his way to Vancouver and began making images of the city he was fascinated by. Herzog captured everyday moments: storefronts, neon signs, people strolling the streets. He had a way of observing his surroundings and bringing moments to a halt with startling clarity.

Black Man Pender (1958) depicts a man holding his daughter’s hand, walking their cocker spaniel in Vancouver’s Chinatown. Today, Chinatown is undergoing many changes—the paint on the walls is fading and some buildings no longer exist. In this photo, we see shadows and reflections cast on the surfaces of the building. The deep red and green hues were possible due to Herzog’s use of Kodachrome. The film requires a slow shutter speed and has a way of illuminating certain colours.

As someone who also immigrated to Canada and works with observing the everyday, I found myself drawn to Herzog’s carefully considered photographs. As observers with cameras, we act like ghosts roaming the streets, studying how light and characters play within the frame. What keeps us wandering is the desire to capture something that can transcend the mundane and stand the test of time. Moments and observations are threads that weave together a photographic practice.

As Vancouver has grown taller with more glass and concrete, what we experience in the city now is no longer like the images captured by Herzog’s eyes. His images captured Vancouver at a certain time and his gaze remains undeniably potent. What we have left to reminisce on with Herzog’s photographs are a city, and an artist, that once were.

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