From Monochrome to Colour: Dave Heath's Photographs and Slide Tape Presentations
Photographer Dave Heath, whose work is the focus of Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath at the National Gallery of Canada, was both an avid collector and discarder of images. The self-described “camera poet” amassed photographs and also edited them rigorously, believing that a ruthless annual culling sharpened his focus. In a career spanning more than six decades, he made several radical changes in artistic direction, abandoning one medium to experiment with another. But wherever he ventured, there was always a lens of some sort, a poetic and aesthetic brilliance, and an ache at the heart of it all.
Heath was open about how feeling abandoned as a child defined his life and his art. Born in Philadelphia in 1931, he was deserted by both parents at a very young age. At 25, he tore up the five personal snapshots he possessed, including one of his mother and father. “I wanted to purify myself, to cleanse the background out of my system. And I think now that I shouldn’t have done that,” he commented in a 1974 interview with writer-photographer Charles Hagen for Afterimage magazine. A subsequent phase, in which he compulsively bought up old photographs found in antique shops, he saw as an attempt to recreate “a family album of my own for a family I never had.”
Filled with a sense of loneliness and yearning to connect, Heath’s own photographs reflect a painful quest for belonging that eased only slightly with age. A veteran of the Korean War, his opposition to the Vietnam War increased the appeal of a job offer from Toronto’s Ryerson University, where he taught photography from 1970 until his mandatory retirement in 1996. He retained his outsider status in his adopted country for more than four decades, becoming a Canadian citizen just two years before his death. He died in Toronto on his 85th birthday – June 27, 2016.
Heath took his last black and white photograph on 17 November 1968, a couple of years before moving to Canada. That final monochrome image shows the crumpled print of a girl in Cincinnati, which he had put out with the garbage but decided to photograph again after finding it later on the street (he was in Philadelphia at the time). By this point, he had spent more than two decades taking pictures of people in urban public spaces – in Philadelphia, New York and other US cities. He had also mastered the darkroom arts of dodging and burning, which allowed him to lighten or darken parts of his photos to focus attention on their emotional highlights, often found in hand gestures and facial expressions.
When Hagen asked him in 1974 why he had stopped taking photographs, Heath, who was deeply introspective, introverted and cerebral, couldn’t immediately put his finger on it: “I’m not quite sure why. Teaching and moving around and resettling in various schools and cities seemed to take a lot out of me.” But he knew intuitively that giving up one mode of expression to try another was a necessary act of reinvention and renewal. “We’re locked into the idea that someone has to spend his whole life doing one thing,” he reflected. “Some people have to change.”
Heath didn’t abandon his existing black and white images, but repurposed them in new formats. The original photograph of the Cincinnati girl, for example, appears alongside its discarded Philadelphia twin in Beyond the Gates of Eden, the first of five immersive audio slideshows he created between 1969 and 1982. It has been digitized for the current exhibition and is projected on a running loop in the Gallery. Keith Davis, senior curator of photography at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City and visiting curator of the Gallery's Heath exhibition, notes in his comprehensive catalogue that Heath's multimedia slideshows "broke new ground within the field of creative photography. At the same time, this 1969 work marked the last expression – for about three decades – of his primary engagement with the city street."
In Toronto in 2000, Heath took up digital colour photography at the urging of Michael Torosian, founder of the fine-art Lumiere Press and one of the 2,000 students Heath taught in his 26 years at Ryerson. After losing his first year of digital work when his laptop was stolen, Heath bought new equipment and started again. He returned to the city streets that provided an easy entrance (and exit) for an introvert seeking non-threatening, non-verbal human contact. Some of his new photographs were taken in Toronto, but mostly he was drawn back to New York, where the war on terror had supplanted the cold war and the impact of 9/11 could be read on residents’ faces.
Heath lived to see his birthplace honour him with the first major US retrospective of his work. In September 2015, eight months before his death, he attended the exhibition opening at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and signed copies of the accompanying book by Davis. “I was shy but I had the need for people and [taking photos] was my way to reach people without being squashed,” Heath was recorded saying at the opening. “I realized something about art very early on – that it opened your soul and made connections to people. Photographers opened my life, they kept me alive, and I always hoped that someday my work could do that for at least one other person.”
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 until September 2, 2019. The accompanying book by Keith F. Davis, with contributions by Michael Torosian, is available in the NGC Boutique. 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