Issue #226  7/29/2016
Dave Heath, Poet-Photographer, Dies from Fall on His 85th Birthday

By Keith F. Davis
Senior Photography Curator, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO

Dave Heath sitting at the opening reception of his show in Philadelphia last fall. (Photo by Alex Novak)
Dave Heath sitting at the opening reception of his show in Philadelphia last fall. (Photo by Alex Novak)

Dave Heath, modern photography's greatest poet of introspection and solitude, died on June 27, 2016, his 85th birthday, after a fall at his home in Toronto, Canada. Heath's career in photography was long and varied, spanning the late 1940s through the first decade of the 21st century. He is best known for his book "A Dialogue with Solitude", assembled in 1963 and published in 1965. He received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1963 (renewed in 1964), and taught from 1965 to 1996, holding positions at the Dayton Art Institute (1965-67), Moore College of Art (1967-70), and, after his move to Toronto, Canada, at Ryerson University (1970-96). Born in Philadelphia, Heath became a landed emigrant in 1970, and a Canadian citizen in 2014.

Heath was an artist of deeply personal motivations and profoundly original talent. Later in life, he said that photography gave him nothing less than "a way of entering the world." His character was shaped by childhood feelings of rejection and isolation. Born in 1931, he was abandoned by both parents by the age of four and raised in foster homes and an orphanage in the Philadelphia area. In 1947, he was inspired by "Bad Boy's Story: An Unhappy Child Learns to Live at Peace with the World," a Life magazine photo-essay by Ralph Crane. This triggered a devoted, intuitive process of self-education—honing his skills with the medium while immersing himself in the history of art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, in New York.

After serving as a machine gunner in the Korean War, Heath applied his GI Bill benefits to a year's study at the Philadelphia Museum School. After a year and a half in Chicago, where he worked in a commercial studio and honed his own vision, Heath arrived in New York City on the first day of 1957. It was here that his talent was first generally recognized. His first exhibition—images of fellow soldiers in Korea—was mounted at the Seven Arts Coffee Gallery in 1958. This was followed by a one-person show at Image Gallery in 1961, and group exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art, the gallery of the Association of Heliographers, and elsewhere. In 1963-64, Heath served as associate editor of Contemporary Photographer. In 1963, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the most prestigious fine-art recognition of the day.

His landmark book "A Dialogue with Solitude" took form in this period, a result of Heath's long-held interest in the orchestration of photographs and his respect for the work of artists such as Wright Morris, W. Eugene Smith, and Robert Frank. Heath refined the layout of Dialogue between 1961 and 1963. The finished book, published in late 1965, is composed of 82 photographs, in ten thematic passages, with passages of text by writers such as W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and James Baldwin. "Dialogue" touches on the most universal aspects of life. It is a work of profound visceral and emotional power, realized in elegantly crafted images of the simplest subjects—human faces and figures, expressions, and interactions. The first edition of 1,400 copies quickly went out of print. A second edition, published in 2000 by Lumiere Press, Toronto, is also out of print.

Heath's subsequent career was distinctly unorthodox, driven by an entirely personal sense of curiosity and need. He ceased traditional darkroom work in 1968, turning instead to the expressive form of the audio-visual slide presentation. The first of these programs, "Beyond the Gates of Eden" (1969), utilized a pair of slide projectors (each with 80 slides), accompanied by Tim Buckley's song "Pleasant Street." Heath worked in this form through 1982, producing four other audio-visual presentations. The most complex of these, "Le grand ALBUM ordinaire" (1973), was a remarkable 64-minute, three-screen presentation with 840 slides and a varied soundtrack.

Heath then fell in love with the immediacy and intimacy of the Polaroid process. In the 1980s, he organized his candid and seductive SX-70 prints into exhibitions under the titles "Songs of Innocence" and "Dew World, or, Dancing with Frenzy Before God". These seemingly simple images testified to Heath's love for the endless small epiphanies of everyday life.

In 2000, he took up digital photography and returned enthusiastically to his original subject—street photography—on the sidewalks of Toronto and New York. At first, these exuberantly colorful works puzzled many of those who loved his somber, monochromatic vintage pictures. It is now clear that this late production represents both a continuation of Heath's classic themes, and a genuinely fresh and remarkable late artistic flowering.

While far from a "household name," Heath has long had a dedicated circle of admirers. Under the direction of James Borcoman, the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, presented a career survey in 1981, and collected his work in depth. Heath's voluminous journals are now held by the National Archives of Canada, Ottawa. Since the late 1990s, his photographs have been shown regularly at the Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, the Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto, and elsewhere. A career retrospective curated by Michael Schreier was mounted at the Ottawa Art Gallery in 2013. Our own show, titled "Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath", with a book of the same title, debuted at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the fall of 2015, and will be on view at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Nov. 19, 2016 – March 19, 2017.

A shy and reclusive figure, Heath was sustained by a group of loyal friends and the deep respect of a larger circle of photographers, curators, and collectors. He was a complex man, at once driven by a primal and recurrent sense of alienation, and a gentle and generous soul. He was both a brilliant photographic craftsman, and an artist who advanced our thinking about the orchestration and presentation of photographic images. It was his particular genius to have transformed his own pain into an artistic statement of the highest and most lasting kind.

With more than 650 prints, acquired over a period of nearly three decades, The Nelson-Atkins Collection has the largest institutional holding of Heath's photographs in the U.S. The exhibition, Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath, opens at the museum on Nov. 19, 2016.