Solitude and Connection: Dave Heath's Universal Expression
Dave Heath, the subject of the exhibition Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath at the National Gallery of Canada, was modern photography’s greatest poet of introspection and loneliness. His photographic career was long and varied, ranging from the late 1940s into the first decade of the 21st century. Best known for his 1965 book A Dialogue with Solitude, Heath went on to work in a variety of other forms, including audiovisual slide programs, personal journals, colour Polaroid work and digital colour photography. After several years of declining health, Heath died on 27 June 2016, his 85th birthday, at his home in Toronto.
Until recently, Heath’s artistic achievement has been too little recognized, a result of his reclusive personality and the relative rarity of his work. This exhibition, organized by The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, and supplemented with works from the National Gallery of Canada, is the largest selection of Heath’s work to be presented in several decades. This attention reflects the importance and originality of his artistic career. While Heath inspired many younger artists, his achievement remains entirely one-of-a-kind. Inspired by the title of his signature work, A Dialogue with Solitude, this exhibition emphasizes Heath’s central themes of self-understanding, loneliness and community.
Heath once said that photography gave him nothing less than “a way of entering the world.” Born in 1931 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he was abandoned by both parents by the age of four and raised in foster homes and an orphanage. He was haunted all his life by these early feelings of rejection and isolation. A natural “loner,” Heath was almost entirely self-taught in art and photography – he learned primarily from books and visits to art museums. After an unsatisfying year of study at the Philadelphia Museum School, Heath moved to Chicago in 1955. There, he worked in a commercial studio by day, while devoting every spare minute to his own work.
Heath came to full artistic maturity after his move to New York City in early 1957. Knowing that he had lived off his own resources long enough, he immersed himself in New York’s vibrant art scene. He studied work in museums and came to know many talented photographers, writers and artists. The creative energy of this world drew out the best in him, tempering his penchant for isolation. Heath began to think about his A Dialogue with Solitude sequence in 1961 and used feedback from noted photographers such as W. Eugene Smith, Robert Frank and Edward Steichen to refine his concept. The result, finally published in 1965, has long been recognized as one of the most important photo-books of the era.
A Dialogue with Solitude was a complete expression of Heath’s vision at that time. He determined every aspect of the book: the size and sequence of the 82 photographs, the typeface and design, and the selected quotations. Organized into ten thematic passages, this book explores the nature of identity in modern society. Heath represented a broad cross-section of humanity: young and old, men and women, black and white, the able-bodied as well as some with physical disabilities. He depicted people as individuals – alone, lost in thought or in relationships with others. In this way, Heath transformed an inward sense of loneliness and vulnerability into a broadly inclusive work of art. The final design prototype for this book – with Heath’s original prints – is at the centre of the Gallery’s exhibition.
The power of Heath’s vision was, in part, a result of his unsurpassed technical skills, the richness and beauty of his black and white prints. However, he gave up traditional darkroom work in 1968, as part of a restless quest for new forms of expression. Between 1969 and 1982, he created a series of audiovisual slide programs, using multiple slide projectors and musical soundtracks. A digital facsimile of the first of these works, Beyond the Gates of Eden (1969), is included in this installation. Heath went on to work intently with personal journals and Polaroid colour photography through the 1980s and 1990s. He returned to street photography in 2001, making colour images with a digital camera on the streets of Toronto and New York.
While Heath embraced a broad variety of creative approaches, he began and ended as a street photographer. This theme forms a central thread of this exhibition. On the busy city street, Heath found a heightened awareness of both his own individuality and his place within the larger realm of society. In the 1860s, poet Charles Baudelaire, the great literary prophet of modernity, wrote in praise of the flâneur, the attentive urban pedestrian. In Baudelaire’s view, only the uncommonly sensitive person could appreciate the aesthetics of the city street: “It is not given to every man to take a bath of multitude: enjoying a crowd is an art.” At its heart, this engagement was a hypnotic, “intoxicating” experience. Most importantly for Baudelaire, it symbolized the union of the two key elements of the modern experience, the mysteries of both self and society: “Multitude, Solitude: identical terms, and interchangeable by the active and fertile poet. The man who is unable to people his solitude is equally unable to be alone in a bustling crowd.”
Dave Heath’s great work stems from his understanding of the power of empathy. Throughout his photographic career, he looked intently at the people around him, acquaintances and strangers alike. Far from a mere voyeur, he did this in a poetic spirit of sympathy and respect. His photographs of people are infused with a psychological directness and power, while reflecting a fundamental need to connect. Through his photographs of faces, gestures and relationships, Heath sought to chart the emotional geography of the human experience – the joys, pains, and uncertainties that we all share. In his photographs, the stranger’s face is never truly alien to us: it always reflects basic elements of ourselves.
Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath, organized by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in association with the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada, is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from March 14 to September 2, 2019. See the NGC Public Program for a full listing of related events. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery news, exhibitions and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.