February 26, 2024

When Master Photographers Spin the Color Wheel – Fred Herzog Mention in NY Times

By Arthur Lubow, New York Times, Published Jan. 24, 2024

When Saul Leiter began shooting Kodachrome slides in New Yok in the late 1940s, color was scorned by most serious photographers, who thought of it as a hobby for vacationing dads or the commercial domain of magazines and advertising agencies.

But Leiter, who died in 2013, was a lifelong painter as well as a photographer. As displayed in “Saul Leiter: Centennial,” an exhibition of photographs and paintings at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in Manhattan, closing on Feb. 10, and a new monograph, “Saul Leiter: The Centennial Retrospective,” he took advantage of everyday filters — a window smeared by raindrops or humidity, the flurries of snowflakes, reflections in glass — to fragment reality into compositions that recalled paintings by the Abstractionists who lived near his place on East 10th Street.

Although his pioneering color pictures are what he is best known for today, Leiter employed similar strategies in his masterly blackand-white photography. He might devote two-thirds or more of the frame to a monochromatic block, inviting you to look as closely at the shadowed street in the (black-and-white) “Walking” (c. 1955) or the eponymous black fabric in the (color) “Canopy, New York” (1958), as you would at the subtle gradations of tone in a painting by Robert Ryman or Ad Reinhardt.

He loved women, and he loved the color red. To judge from his photographs, you’d be sure to come across a woman toting a red umbrella, if you ventured out in a snowstorm in New York in the ’50s. Part of his fondness for red may derive from Kodachrome’s exceptional capacity to capture its vibrancy. But there was a severe drawback to color photography at the time. Because prints were unstable and expensive, the slides were typically viewed as projections on walls for friends and colleagues.

Although Leiter excelled in both formats, prowess as a black-andwhite photographer doesn’t guarantee equal success in color, as a just-published collection of mostly never-seen prints, “Winogrand Color” (Twin Palms Publishers, 2023), demonstrates. A black-andwhite photographer who captured the boisterous ballet of the street like no one else, Garry Winogrand became slacker and weaker when working in color, at least in the images selected for the book by Michael Almereyda and Susan Kismaric. (They also collaborated on a Brooklyn Museum show in 2019 led by the curator Drew Sawyer with more than 400 of Winogrand’s color slides; though memorable in the aggregate, the exhibition was hard to recall in the particular. )

Joel Meyerowitz, a prominent photographer who has been shooting in color since 1962, used to accompany Winogrand on weekend photo forays, with Winogrand’s girlfriend and two kids. Winogrand gravitated toward places attractive to children — Coney Island, Central Park, the zoo. He would hold one camera loaded with blackand-white film, another with color. He called the second one “his schmaltz camera,” Meyerowitz recalled, in a recent phone interview.

Winogrand, who died in 1984, at 56, had an astringent take on the world that didn’t benefit from the infusion of color. Whereas William Eggleston’s early black-and-white pictures, despite their astute composition, feel like neon signs waiting for the electric charge of color, for Winogrand it was painting the lily — adding an unnecessary element to something fully formed.

His black-and-white picture of Big Tex, the cowboy effigy that hovers over the State Fair of Texas in Dallas, shows a motley assortment of Texans sitting and cavorting beneath the absurd figure. In the color variant, much of the space is taken up by a blank blue sky and the visitors are indistinct, so that the comedy is drained. Even less successful is the color version of one of his most famous photographs, “Central Park Zoo, New York City” (1967), which shows a Black man and blonde woman, seemingly affluent, each carrying a fully clad chimpanzee. It is a biting and unsettling comment on the era’s prevailing slurs about interracial marriage. In the color image, probably taken an instant later, the man is looking at the camera, the woman’s expression has changed, and the impact is diffused by the photographer’s own obscuring shadow and a distracting crowd of passers-by.

The best photos in the book are anomalous. The previously published “White Sands National Monument, New Mexico,” 1964, transposes Winogrand’s fascination with alienated and isolated Americans into a beautiful blue-and-white image. And some of his very early Coney Island photographs, taken in the ’50s, use colour to convey the tender vulnerability of sand-streaked flesh.

However, to my mind, the finest Winogrand color photo was not made by Winogrand at all but by Fred Herzog, a still underappreciated Vancouver-based artist who began taking color photographs in 1953 and kept at it for 20 years. In the foreground of his “Man with Bandage, 1968,” a middle-aged fellow, wearing a white T-shirt and holding a cigarette in his bandaged left hand, raises his right arm, which has a visible bruise. Behind him, a primly dressed elderly lady stands at the bus stop and regards him disapprovingly. It is exactly the sort of humorous urban juxtaposition that Winogrand loved to depict.

But Herzog makes full use of the color red. A blood-soaked bit of tissue on the man’s chin is picked up by a shaded hotel awning on the left, by the sign for the bus above the woman, and — most emphatically — by the bright red mailbox that holds down the right-hand quarter of the frame. In this schmaltz-free image, color adds to the tension. It is as if Herzog heard notes in a frequency that Winogrand didn’t catch.

Image Credit: Fred Herzog, “Man with Bandage,” 1968