Monday, May 14, 2012

Book Review - Fred Herzog: Photographs and a Musing On Instagram

We love our local heros here in Vancouver. One of mine (not hockey related) is Fred Herzog, who was born in Germany and settled in Vancouver in the 1950's. His work has captured a lot of the town as it was, and is a reminder of how much things have changed. Vancouver didn't see the sea change of offshore money until the mid-80's, so even though the body of his work was from the 50's and 60's,  the streets that he captured are faintly evocative of the town as I new it in as a (very) young child in the 80's. Parts of the Strathcona neighborhood still look the same as in Herzog's photos, especially the neighborhood corner stores which have all but disappeared from the rest of the city. Equinox Gallery - Fred Herzog

Herzog was one of the early pioneers of colour film, and his pictures belay the technology and equipment of the day. Funny thing is, his work makes for a interesting viewing in light of the Instagram phenomenon. Take a perfectly good picture, then apply an artistic filter over it to create a nostalic mood. It's the digital version of Lomography, as championed by Holga. Well maybe not. The blurb on Holga's website:

"The unassuming Holga is here to save the analogue junky in a digital world. You no longer have to fear a future of digital pixels and images shared on small camera screens or phones."

So yes, if you believe the makers of Holga, a simple plastic camera with an absurd markup, primitive looking photos will save us from the thing that has made photography even more accessible to the masses and return us to the pure art of photography. And you have to buy film to make it work. Because the fact that our pictures are too perfect is a hindrance to art... apparently.

I'm not discounting the Lomography  phenomenon, but as one with a corporate day job, I find Holga's prose a bit rich for something that is obviously very cheap to manufacture, and which is sold at a fairly high margin. The whole thing has a casual tongue in cheek quality to it that is very charming, but I have yet to find one sold in any of our local "serious" camera stores. That's telling, because you can still find cheap penny whistles and plastic ukeleles in music stores. Maybe it's because nobody is trying to sell a kazoo as an emancipator from the tyranny of perfectly in-tune music. But then again, hipsters have given the ukelele a renaissance and nobody in the music world seems to mind.

Instagram circumvented all that by doing away with the need for a toy camera and saving you from hunting for the last remaining store that sells actual film. Without so much as batting a eye, legions of iPhone users became ironic hipsters with hardly any effort at all. Which is not to say I have anything against Instagram. In fact, it's one of the apps on my phone. I do understand the appeal, and to be honest, I've seen some very creative work from non-photographer friends that straight up digital photography hasn't yet inspired. But yes, I do feel it's a little fake.

Which brings me back to Fred Herzog.When you browse through his work, what strikes you is that even though the photography is from a bygone time, the fact of the matter is that technically, it is superb. The pictures are beautiful and bear all the traces of somebody who put effort into crafting them with precision. The shots are crisp, the exposure is measured, and there is nary a trace of optical flaws like vignetting and lens flare. Yet these are the very things that Instagram and Lomography do to mimic this bygone time in photography....And that is the phoniness of it. The past is not the past because it is a less perfect version of today. People of every era do their utmost to create the perfection that is within their grasp. Thus, our nostalgia of days gone by is imperfect when we use imperfect methods to remember them. One day, the 2060 version of Instragram will have an artistic filter that burdens perfectly good photos with the oversharpened, oversaturated sRGB gamut images that were so evocative of the early 2000's.  And even that won't truly capture what our time was really about.

(And yes, I am fully aware that people like Instagram because  of the social aspect of it and that artistic filters hide flaws like pimples and blotchy complexion.)
An ironic end note to all of this. Instagram is a favourite amongst hipsters for evoking Herzgo's era. The Strathcona neighborhood and downtown east side that are captured in some of his works? Hipster enclaves now. Here's an Amazon link to Fred Herzog's work. I highly recommend it as the antidote to Vancouver over-development fatigue. 

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