November 1, 2011 4:00 AM EDT

In 1953, decades before William Eggleston and Stephen Shore established color photography as a serious medium for art photography, Fred Herzog shot his first roll of color film.

His wonderful and remarkable street pictures are the subject of a new monograph called Fred Herzog Photographs, published this month by Douglas and McIntyre. The book offers deep insight into the photographer’s color work, which was made during a time when serious, documentary and fine art photography was still being shot in black-and-white. The tools were there, as Herzog says, “to make unposed photographs in color that have historical value.”

CPR Pier & Marine Building, 1953. A photograph taken from Herzog's first roll of color film
© Fred Herzog—Courtesy of Equinox Gallery, Vancouver

Fred Herzog was 20 years old—a late comer to photography—when he brought his first camera in 1950 and began shooting black-and-white pictures in his native Germany. Two years later, in search of work, Herzog traveled to Canada, eventually settling in Vancouver, where he still lives and works today. In 1953 on leave from his job in the shipyards, Herzog made the first of some 120,000 color photographs, on the city’s streets. The photographer treated the pictures “as a form of journalism,” using Kodachrome ISO10, a film that severely limited him technically in terms of what he could do. But Herzog was not afraid to take chances, shooting handheld even at night.

Herzog, does not claim to be the first color street photographer—for that honor, he cites his contemporary, the more lyrical New York street photographer Saul Leiter—but he was certainly among the first to produce a large volume of color images of this type. Herzog expanded street photography to encompass billboards, store windows and cars. The greater body of his images focus on the grittier aspects of Vancouver and they were a response to the culture he found in Canada. “In Germany you did not buy something secondhand—it is a social necessity to look successful,” he says. “For me it is not. Canada offered an interesting contrast. It had secondhand shops in the American idiom. I saw in the secondhand store windows the icons of Americanism in a picturesque jumble.” Herzog incorporated some of that Americanism into his work. “I showed the American dream on posters. I showed old cars, new cars, worn cars, people in cars and the decay of the car— more as a phenomenon than a social criticism,” he says, though adding that his intention was always “for his work to be ideologically neutral.”

Around lunch time on Sunday, Sergei Yurchenko, a pro-Russia militia leader in the region of Crimea, got a call on his cell phone from an officer of the SBU secret police, Ukraine's successor to the Soviet-era KGB. He knew many of its agents well. Hardly a year has passed since they investigated him on charges of separatism. Since the early 2000s, when he first began training pro-Russia paramilitaries in Crimea, the Ukrainian agents would often subject him to interrogations about his political views, and they would supervise police raids on his training camps in Crimea to search for weapons and ammunition. Now, those same agents are essentially working for him. “Hey, Kolya,” Yurchenko said into the phone, using a nickname for the agent, as he drove through the streets of the Crimean city of Bakhchysarai in his SUV. “What's the good word?” The agent on the other end of the phone asked him to come to a local polling station, where the residents were voting in a referendum on Sunday to allow Russia to annex Crimea. Later in the day the referendum passed overwhelmingly, setting the stage for further confrontation between Russia and Ukraine and its Western allies. But when the agent called the voting was still underway. The man who once investigated Yurchenko was not requesting his presence to help coordinate the local militiamen who were in charge of policing the vote. “Sure,” said Yurchenko, “I'll be there in a bit.” The role reversal between Yurchenko and his former persecutors from the SBU, whose full name is the Security Service of Ukraine, epitomizes the way that Sunday's referendum has turned the ruling order in Crimea upside down. The local separatists and their ethnic Russian supporters are having the time of their lives, and Yurchenko's paramilitary group, the Cossacks, is now very much in charge of this part of Crimea. “This is a dream come true for us, of course,” he told TIME while driving around to his city's polling stations. “We've been waiting for most of our lives to reunite with our Russian brothers.” Judging by the preliminary results of Sunday's referendum, so have most people on the Crimean peninsula. The early vote tally showed that 83% of the peninsula's registered voters had cast their ballots, and at least 95% of them had voted in favor of becoming a part of Russia. That may seem like an impossible result, the mark of a rigged election. And in some ways it was. The vote was held during a Russian military occupation of Crimea and the ballot did not offer voters the option of keeping their current status in Ukraine. The choice on the ballot was between sweeping autonomy from the government in Kiev and Russian annexation of the peninsula. But Yurchenko and the other organizers of the referendum did not have to stuff any ballot boxes to get the results they wanted. More than half of Crimea's residents are ethnic Russians, and they were horrified at last month's revolution in Ukraine. Russia has cast the interim Ukrainian government as a fascist junta intent on stripping the local Russian communities of their rights. So it is not surprising that many of Crimea's ethnic Russian residents have welcomed Russia's military occupation of Crimea as well as the prospect of Russian annexation. The dissenting voices of Crimea's ethnic minorities, primarily Ukrainians and Muslim Tatars, have meanwhile not been counted in the referendum, because they have largely boycotted the vote as an illegal act of separatism. “We've lived under totalitarians and idiots on this land,” says Akhtem Chiygoz, the leader of the Tatar community in the city of Bakhchisaray, where Tatars make up about a quarter of the population. “But in Ukraine at least we've felt free. The struggle for our rights has been open and declarative in Ukraine. Now we will have to continue that struggle under an occupation.” On the day of the referendum, Chiygoz was holed up in his office with a few of his fellow Tatar activists, smoking cigarillos and watching the results come in on the local Tatar television network. If Yurchenko was the winner of the day, Chiygoz was the loser. And there were many others besides. Archbishop Kliment, the leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Crimea, had informed his congregants that voting in the referendum would make them accessories to a crime against Ukraine. So most of them stayed away. But that did not make them immune to the transformations overtaking Crimea on Sunday, as they knelt before the altar at the morning mass. “It's like we've been caught up in a net that is dragging us down, back into the past,” says Kliment, whose denomination of of the Orthodox faith makes up about 10% of Crimea's two million residents. “We grasp that what's happening around us is illegal, and we grasp that we can't escape,” he says. “But beyond that the healthy human mind cannot comprehend this madness.” Those pockets of dejection were isolated, however, and they were drowned out by the celebrations put on for the ethnic Russians of Crimea. Pop stars flew in from Moscow to serenade the locals from a stage set up in the capital, Simferopol, where columns of cars waving the Russian tricolor drove through the streets honking their horns in jubilation as the results of the ballot came in. “And now I'll be returning home, at once a saint and a sinner, where the vodka will soothe my ailing voice,” sang the Russian diva Vika Tsyganova, dressed in a gown of bright red silk. For the tens of thousands of people who came out to listen to her in the central square of Simferopol, the day's vote did mark a sort of homecoming, as well as a chance to break from the country where they have hardly felt at ease since the collapse of the Soviet Union. “Russia is where we belong,” says Ekaterina Styozhka, 25, who came out to vote in Bakhchysarai, bringing with along her 6-year-old daughter Alina. “Right now, for the sake of our children, we have to think about stability first, and that lies with Russia.” The revolution that brought a new government to power last month in Ukraine, she says, will bring in an era of chaos, and the referendum is her and her people's chance to escape. “All those dreams of joining Europe are no more than fantasies,” she says. “Not with those new leaders. Just look at them.” In the eyes of most Crimeans, clouded as they have been by Russian propaganda, the new government in Ukraine is dominated by neo-Nazis, and Sunday's choice was presented to them as one between fascism and Russia. Billboards around Crimea showed the peninsula either draped in the Russian tricolor or stamped with a big, black swastika. That kind of fear-mongering, even Yurchenko admits, overstates the threat from the new government in Kiev. “It's not so much that they're fascists,” he says. “It's that they did not respect our rights." Days after coming to power last month, the parliament in Kiev passed a bill revoking the rights of Ukraine's regions from making Russian an official language alongside Ukrainian. For ethnic Russians in Crimea, that felt like an omen of worse persecution to come. “If they hadn't done that, if they had come to us offering greater autonomy from the beginning, offering respect for the Russians of Crimea, things would not have come to this,” Yurchenko says. And even though Kiev did not take long to realize its mistake – repealing the discriminatory language law and offering greater autonomy to Crimea this month – it was too late. Russian troops had by then occupied the region. The SBU security service and the regional police force in Crimea had switched sides, pledging allegiance to the peninsula's new pro-Russian leader, Sergei Aksyonov, who had come to power with the support of armed commandos on Feb. 27. “We are going home!” Aksyonov said from the stage in Simferopol on Sunday night, a few hours after the referendum ended just as he had intended. “Crimea is part of Russia, comrades, hurrah!” And with that, the Russian national anthem began to play over the sea of Russian and Crimean flags. “No one can take our victory away,” Aksyonov shouted into the microphone, and the crowd began to wail in jubilation.

For several decades thereafter, Herzog continued shooting the streets as a pastime—while working as a medical photographer by day—and enjoyed moderate success with his work. But it wasn’t until 2007 that his first major show went on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery. When this opportunity came, Herzog—who was by then in his late seventies—used new technologies to recover and present images that would otherwise have been forever lost. Many photos were able to be rescued through scanning and ink jet printing that restored the intended color palette. With the show, Herzog’s photographs found a wider audience and several books were published of the work. And luckily, for photography fans, the latest is the most comprehensive yet and features written essays by Douglas Coupland and fellow Vancouver-based photographer and artist Jeff Wall. “They have been very generous,” Herzong says of the Vancouver vanguard, including Wall whom Herzog now counts amongst his close friends. “I didn’t step on anyone’s toes by coming late and having success.”

Fred Herzog Photographs, was published this month by Douglas and McIntyre.

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