Streetwise: Fred Herzog

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No one captured the exuberance and diversity of Vancouver quite like photographer Fred Herzog. I finally caught his exhibition at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum this week and was absorbed by each frame, trying to surmise how he had snapped the fleeting moment as it flew.

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Herzog did most of his best work from the late 1950s to early 1970s, a time when Vancouver was confident and unaware, like an invincible teenager oblivious to the big world waiting in the shadows to sucker punch his smirk away. Wedged between the Pacific Ocean and Rocky Mountains, Vancouver could imagine itself as the beginning and end of all roads. Herzog documented this magical interval, this winking adolescence in fizzy colours and with impeccable timing.

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This is the city of my parents’ youth, my mother having grown up on the west side, first around Dunbar and 33rd and then Oak and 26th. It’s the city my father never knew as a native, only as a day tripper who would come down from the interior to blow a wad of cash in the bars around Main Street. Herzog turned this era into a visual serenade of what might be when the future seems open to all possibility.

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Herzog’s images reveal with a gesture, a flick of the wrist or the juxtaposition of a billboard with an open skyline. His work gives more than his personal grotesqueries take away. That he recently expressed doubt about the “so-called holocaust” is as banal and predictable as Hannah Arendt would have it, yet for me, it doesn’t diminish the work he created. “Banal Man Creates Extraordinary Work” is a familiar headline and reveals nothing more than a slow news day.

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