Book Review: Fred Herzog’s Modern Color

This is a feature I’ve been contemplating for some time and, well, the time has come. In spite of my seeming inability to stop myself from purchasing cameras, I’ve offset that tendency somewhat by putting funds into photo books. I think that at this point in my photographic evolution, books are frankly a better and more valuable asset than additional gear. I have all the camera equipment I need and then some; I have not even scratched the surface on the quality photography books that have been published.

Looking at other people’s work can be inspiring, or educational, or a waste of time. But not looking at it places anyone who aspires to any sort of quality and self-improvement in the unenviable position of trying to do so without any sort of point of reference. How do you know if your work is any good if you don’t have good work to compare it to? Put another way, everything is original and brilliant if you’re only comparing it to your own work.

Why books instead of various internet outlets? One word: editing. To get a book published (by a real publisher and put up for commercial sale in major retail outlets, not something you printed four copies of to give your relatives) you have to work with an editor, and that means someone else – hopefully someone with a good, critical eye for photography – has to weigh in on the quality of the work. Any jackass can put his own photographs up on some self-aggrandizing website (I mean, look what you’re reading…), but published photographers are few and far between.

So I will occasionally write up a brief review of a book that I’ve acquired (I bought the book discussed here, and have no interest in its commercial success or failure. If some publisher decides to start throwing books at me, I’ll let you know.). I’m fairly picky in my selections, and as such I suspect there will be more positive reviews than negative, but they will all be careful and critical evaluations, not fluff pieces. If they help to introduce a few people to a few books of photography, great.

***

I’m kicking this off with my most recent book purchase, Fred Herzog’s Modern Color. The title is a bit misleading, as most of the photos were taken around fifty years ago, but there is something nonetheless modern about Herzog’s use of color. A German immigrant to Canada, he was an early adopter of Kodachrome and apparently shot it for decades, working mostly with a Leica and 50mm and 135mm lenses.

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The book begins with three essays introducing the photographer and providing some context for his work. The second of these appears to have been translated from German and would have benefited from a more elegant translation. The third, Jeff Wall’s brief lament for the bygone world Herzog shows us, is particularly strong. Collectively, they do a solid job of placing us into the world Fred Herzog inhabited and photographed.

The core of any photography book must, of course, be the photographs, and here they are nicely presented, well-printed, and carefully chosen. Most are printed in facing single plates, though there are some spread across two pages, as well as the occasional blank facing page. Obviously most are color images, but there are a few black and whites included; they are fine photos, but they do feel a little out of place.

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The organization is fluid and thematic, moving easily from his early work in the late 1950s to occasional forays as late as the early 2000s and back again. But it’s clear that Herzog was at his most prolific in the 50s and 60s, and in his home city of Vancouver. Many subjects are revisited: streets awash in neon, ships and docks, cars, small run-down houses, storefronts. The palette of the time suited his tastes, the way he saw his world, and the way the Kodachrome portrayed it.

This is what makes Herzog’s work exceptional: the synergy of the technical elements and his vision shows how a photographer can make the best of what’s available. In a sense, it’s a skill that modern photographers may never develop to the degree that Herzog did. The tools available now are so capable of altering the raw material of the negative as shot that there’s simply no need to master more restrictive, more limited equipment. Sure, it’s entirely possible to create great work with digital editing tools, but it’s post-facto, with the luxury of time.

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Modern Color is an excellent book, particularly for any photographer who thinks about color as a primary element of their photography. Herzog’s work deserves to be more well-known than it is, and this book is a very good way to become acquainted with it.


5 thoughts on “Book Review: Fred Herzog’s Modern Color

  1. I agree fully about buying photobooks. I love the things, both as a means of experiencing and studying the work of photographers whose output I enjoy (and discovering new photographers too), and also as a source of inspiration. There’s nothing like a great photobook to make you want to pick up a camera and make photographs.

    The downside to this (and it’s not something I can *really* complain about) is that I now have a backlog of books in a stack nearly two feet high to get around to reading. 🙂

  2. As a book lover first and foremost I enjoyed reading your post for its eloquence, the subject matter just happens to be something I’ve come to enjoy recently. I’m on the hunt for photography books and think I’ll add this to the list.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post – I’m sure you’ll like Herzog’s work. I too have an affinity for books, as witnessed by the shelves and stacks that are slowly closing in around me as I type. It’s a blessing and a curse, as I’m sure you know.

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