herzog and disavowal: images of knowing and unknowing

Lately, there has been a wave of interest in early color photography which at the time was shunned in the art world. Everything had to be black and white a la Joseph Stieglitz. But, there has been an awakened interest. Maybe its the color saturation that gives the impression of Technicolor. Fred Herzog is one artist who is finally getting some overdue recognition for his work in the 1960′s in Vancouver which to some extent mirrors the photography of Helen Levitt in New York when she switched to color; in part in order to show this “new” urban world.

image: http://therepublicofless.wordpress.com/category/photography/page/2/ Read More:http://www.arthistoryguide.com/Fred_Herzog.aspx Herzog. 1959.---Melissa Montgomery:Fred Herzog was born in 1930 Stuttgart, Germany. Growing up in World War II, he witnessed the total and complete destruction of his home city. His high school was evacuated to the country during the war, which saved his life. Both his parents died during and after the war- his mother from lack of medical care due to typhoid in 1941 and his father from cancer just after the war ended. As a young child Fred had his first camera, a Kodak, and he began taking rural- based landscape photographs while on holiday with his family. Little did he know that he would grow up to be a very well known urban landscape photographer – another continent away.

The photographs in this posting are from the website of Equinox Gallery in Vancouver. For $20 plus postage, you can obtain a complete catalogue.Just click on the image for a link to their site.

In looking at Herzog’s work, appropriately,there appeared a news report released today in which it reported the income gap between rich and poor in Canada widened in the period from 1993 to 2009, according to the Conference Board of Canada. The richest Canadians increased their share of total national income while the poor and those with middle incomes saw their portions shrink, according to the board’s analysis, entitled “How Canada Performs.” Incomes of the poor increased marginally in the period, it said, but the gap between rich and poor widened.The average income of the poorest Canadians rose from $12,400 in 1976 to $14,500 in 2009. However, the gap between the real average income of the richest 20 per cent of Canadians and the poorest 20 per cent widened from $92,300 in 1976 to $117,500 in 2009…. Read More:http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2011/07/13/income-gap-canada-conference-board.html

Read More:http://www.equinoxgallery.com/artists/fred-herzog/art/90142 Bogners Grocery Ink Jet Print 19.5 x 30 in. image size 1960 Edition of 20 90142


This look at the underclasses and working poor informs the subtext of Herzog’s work, lending it a credibility based on a sense of humanity that likely goes as far back as antiquity. Its the underside of Norman Rockwell. That other America somehow left out of the purity of the middle-class. Its not the Disney view of  culture; something secure in middle-class values and smug in its own sense of the virtuous and innocence.Herzog is not part of the innocence industry, lockstep with those specializing in an engagement with disavowal. I look at Herzog’s work as being complementary to that of Norman Rockwell.After all,  American culture is markedly addicted to this sense of itself,a swollen sense of exceptionalism,  and  has refined disavowal into a high art through work like Rockwell’s.

While the subsurface of Rockwell’s work can be quite dark and complex, Herzog’s underside is almost liberating in its consistency and transparency. Rockwell played on the drama of an innocence that can be knocked down repeatedly, only to spring up in new and different forms. Not so much innocent as they are about the ways society manufactures innocence, and markets it as a commodity. Herzog’s photos show that innocence is something we indeed create,not something we are necessarily born to. Like Rockwell’s sometimes unconscous interpretation of it; it is story we tell about ourselves, not something we are. Herzog’s photos seem to predate the modern view of innocence: namely, a natural endowment we enjoy as infants and that dirties with age. Rockwell was equally aware of this sentimental cult of the child that seemed to begin with Dickens. But, since the age of romanticism, it has been a necessary illusion.

Read More:http://danielonphotography.wordpress.com/2010/10/02/fred-herzog-c-o-berlin-co-ausstellung-co-show-berlin-postfuhramt-vancouver-color-photography-1960s-daniel-hofer-fotograf-blog-photographer-co-moves/---In the early 1950s, Fred Herzog began to revolutionize established viewing habits and existing orthodoxies. As a pioneer of color photography, he developed a profound visual sensibility for the ostensibly inconsequential. His subject matter included Vancouver streets, supermarkets, gas stations, bars, urban and natural landscapes—and again and again, people in their environments, visualizing the highs and lows of the (North) American dream.

Certainly,Rockwell’s world isn’t the real world, or at least not much of that world. That’s the point. His illustrations offer a nice respite from the pressures and tensions of life and there is nothing qualitatively wrong with escapism. Nothing, really.Except if one’s  life is an elaborate and extended respite from those things. Then its a lie, or cowardly. For that is what innocence is. Innocence is an ingrained habit of denying what one knows but doesn’t want to know. Innocence is a choice not to know something, and therefore dishonest, since the very choice must be based on some presentiment, some suspicion, some tiny bit of knowledge that we already possess. Innocence is a pretense of ignorance,a dream state involving an anesthetization of memory and a certain degree of repression; a pretense staged not so much for others as for ourselves. Herzog’s photos strip away at the thin veneer of innocence, investing the subject with a kind of collective poetry in which their respite is in the pressures and tensions of daily existence.

image: http://www.equinoxgallery.com/artists/fred-herzog/art/90174 Read More:http://blog.alexwaterhousehayward.com/2011/02/fred-herzog-reading-pictures.html Alex Waterhouse-Hayward:But I believe there is more to this than just that. Like Cartier-Bresson, Herzog worked in a loneliness of one who had mastered the use of a camera in an era where few owned a camera or had the knowledge to go out and take pictures. I argue that if Cartier-Bresson came to Vancouver as a young man he would be on employment insurance in a short while. There are many more photographers out there shooting scenes in the street with cameras that make the task a bit less onerous. We see them everywhere, on facebook, of Flickr and even in large sections of the National Geographic where if they use your picture you get photo credit glory and no more. We are inundated with colour, we are inundated with colour pictures. We are inundated with perfectly sharp, punchy and colourful pictures of India (taken by someone who lives on Sperling Avenue in Burnaby) or of grand pictures of monasteries in Tibet snapped by someone who hails from

ey or the Westside. The exotic is commonplace. But paradoxically for Herzog, the commonplace of yesteryear is now the new exotic. Few at Herzog’s show today might have appreciated the sometimes muted colours or the lack of punchy contrast. If anything the show was a photographer’s photographer show. It is this loneliness of approach, of Herzog’s loneliness of approach, that finally did me in and I had to leave the great show with a tail between my legs.

Melissa Montgomery:In 1961, encouraged by a friend, Fred began to work as a medical photographer at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver BC. He continued to take his urban landscapes on weekends. Colour film and developing was expensive so Fred would only take maximum one photograph of a subject or location. Fred used slide film to take photos which turned out to be a stroke of genius, since very few photographers were using slide film and also because it freed him from the burden of developing his own work- often costly and time consuming. Today the colour captured in the colour slide film he used take us back to that time prior when we look at a Fred Herzog photograph. The photographs have a vibrant quality to them; it’s as if we are looking into a crystal ball pointed backwards in time.Read More:http://www.arthistoryguide.com/Fred_Herzog.aspx aa

Herzog. 1962.Read More:http://www.equinoxgallery.com/artists/fred-herzog/art/90216

Walter Benjamin:The secular cult of beauty, developed during the Renaissance and prevailing for three centuries, clearly showed that ritualistic basis in its decline and the first deep crisis which befell it. With the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, photography, simultaneously with the rise of socialism, art sensed the approaching crisis which has become evident a century later. At the time, art reacted with the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, that is, with a theology of art. This gave rise to what might be called a negative theology in the form of the idea of “pure” art, which not only denied any social function of art but also any categorizing by subject matter. (In poetry, Mallarme was the first to take this position.)…

Read More:http://www.equinoxgallery.com/artists/fred-herzog/art/90184 ---Newspaper Readers Ink Jet Print 30 x 18 in.image size 1961 edition of 20 90184---

…An analysis of art in the age of mechanical reproduction must do justice to these relationships, for they lead us to an all-important insight: for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics. Read More:http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm

Read More:http://blog.alexwaterhousehayward.com/2011/02/fred-herzog-reading-pictures.html

Read More:http://blog.caryconover.com/2008/04/fred-herzog.html



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One Response to herzog and disavowal: images of knowing and unknowing

  1. Maureen says:

    Marvelous series of photographs and an interesting read.

    Some the images would no doubt look quite gritty in black-and-white. Color can rob images of their austerity, which itself can change our perception of them.

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