In an age that allows us, even encourages us, to curate our self-image online, where would we be without the selfie? Taken only when we are absolutely ready for our close-up, it’s photography and hagiography all in one, smoothly filtering out the less-than-glamorous truth of our day-to-day lives.
So it comes as a welcome, though bracing, antidote to our current world that the National Gallery’s newest exhibition focuses on a photographer who peeked past idyllic facades in search of a more realistic and revealing take on the human condition.
Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath is a retrospective of a troubled street photographer considered by many to be one of the greatest of his generation. Yet, he remains scarcely known by the general public. The 180 black-and-white and colour images in this show span the years 1949 to 2012 and include the maquette of Heath’s masterwork, A Dialogue with Solitude (1965) with the original mock-ups of the book’s pages displayed individually. This stop for the exhibition also includes additional works by Heath drawn from the collections of the National Gallery, Library and Archives Canada and his estate.
“Dave was someone who lived a lot of his life in a state of turmoil,” explains Keith F. Davis, the exhibition’s creator and the Senior Curator of Photography at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, the most recent stop for this show. “There’s a melancholy aspect to his work because that’s who he was. The big issues in his work are a sense of mortality, physical frailty and a sense of disconnection.”
Bounced between foster homes
That disconnection was rooted in the trauma of Heath’s childhood. Born in Philadelphia in 1931, he was abandoned first by his father, then his mother, all by the time he was four years old. Bounced between foster homes and an orphanage, he eventually formed a love of photography as a teenager when he discovered a photo essay in LIFE magazine about a troubled foster child.
“He was scarred. His whole life was scarred by this primal sense of rejection and abandonment,” says Davis. “That animated a lot of what he did which was to discover who he was and how he related to all the people around him.”
After serving as a machine-gunner in the U.S. Army in the Korean War and photographing his fellow soldiers, Heath spent time in Philadelphia, Chicago and, most important, New York City before travelling across America with the financial help of two consecutive Guggenheim Fellowships. In 1970, he emigrated from the U.S. to assume a job teaching photography at what was then Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. He lived in Canada for the remainder of his life, becoming a citizen about a year before his death on this 85th birthday in 2016.
Master of the darkroom
Heath’s ability to develop, as a person, may have been arrested, but with film, it soared. Mostly self-taught, Heath was a master of the print. His darkroom magic teased out intense, startling combinations of light and shadow that heightened the impact of his images. With his covertly captured subjects lost in thought and feeling, there is a sense of isolation and loneliness in many of his photos; a vulnerability and alienation in which the deepest shadows cast are the ones from the photographer’s childhood.
“What I have endeavoured to convey in my work is not a sense of futility and despair, but an acceptance of life’s tragic aspects,” Heath once observed. “Out of acceptance of this truth—that the pleasures and joys of life are fleeting and rare…—must come love and concern for the human condition.”
Health was determined to create images that told stories, but also retained a hint of mystery. A soldier lying down, exhausted, his arm slung across his eyes perhaps to shut out the war around him. A little girl desperately clutching her mother’s hand, her eyes wide open with fear, but of just what, we don’t know. An old man leaning on a wall, propping himself up as he labours to reach an unknown destination. Heath’s camera calls for compassion in a world in which we are all leaning into the wind.
“I can’t think of another body of work that is so directly about the primal sense of our sort of psychological or emotional existence. There’s no irony in his work, there’s no cleverness in his work. He’s not playing games of any kind. He’s really just delving deep, deep, deep into his own head and his own life but finding connections to the society around him.”
Shy and wary
But the man who tried so hard to connect with others in his art often failed to in his life. Heath’s only marriage was short-lived, no more than a year or so. He had some friends but, according to Davis who met him several times, was shy and wary of others and could be difficult. Others go further, suggesting he was irascible, even curmudgeonly. He never sought fame or commercial success which perhaps explains why, despite his critical accomplishments, he remains virtually unknown especially when compared to such contemporaries as Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and even the more recently discovered Vivian Maier.
“The word melancholy or bittersweet, I think those capture something about him. He sought moments of joy… But he also had experience with all the other aspects of life. So this body of work was achieved in an almost heroic struggle against these givens in his life… He didn’t always succeed, he alienated certain people while others loved him. It wasn’t an easy row to hoe.”
That internal struggle yielded a body of work that, according to Davis, becomes better with time. The curator has been studying Heath since the 1970s. Yet even after all these years, his interest in this complicated, conflicted man and artist just continues to grow.
“I’ve been looking at it for decades. The more one looks at it, the richer and deeper it gets and you can’t say that about every body of work. You really can’t. This body of work absolutely has that quality. It keeps rewarding further thought and further contemplation.”
Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath runs until September 2 at the National Gallery of Canada. The exhibition is free with admission to the gallery. Exhibition Curator Keith F. Davis will lead an English-language guided tour with bilingual question period on Saturday, March 23, 2019 at noon. It is free with admission to the gallery.