Melancholy man: The photographs of David Heath capture a bittersweet world

Dave Heath. Failed Resuscitation, Central Park, New York City, 1957. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Gift of the Hall Family Foundation. © Howard Greenberg Gallery and Stephen Bulger Gallery.

There’s an incongruity between the photographs by David Heath and the photograph of David Heath.

The 180 photographs taken by David Heath, on exhibition at the National Gallery, are largely of people with unsettled expressions, sometimes dread or despair. There are glimmers of happiness and even playfulness, but over all hangs an air of melancholy, like an impassive, dark cloud.

Then there’s a portrait of Heath with a smile so big it all but splits his face horizontally. Is it possible that that happy moment — in 1960 when Heath was 29 or 30 years old — was to his life as the portrait is to this exhibition, a bright moment amid a prevailing darkness?

“He was a complicated person. To me the words melancholy and bittersweet tell a fair bit about his sensibility,” says Keith Davis, curator of the exhibition, and author of Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath, which is also the title of the exhibition.

“He did feel scarred by this episode very early in his life, this profound feeling of abandonment and rejection. That led him to questions of who am I, how do I belong, what’s wrong with me, how do I connect to people,” says Davis, who is senior curator of photography at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.

Dave Heath. Rochester, New York, 1958. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc. © Howard Greenberg Gallery and Stephen Bulger Gallery.

By age four. Heath’s father and mother had walked out, and he ended up in an orphanage in his native Philadelphia. Later he served as a machine gunner during the Korean War, and in 1970 he came to Canada to teach at Ryerson University in Toronto, and stayed until he died in 2016, on his 85th birthday.

Heath was never a household name, but he became an influential figure in photography. Davis says Heath’s “contributions to creative photography were enormous.” James Borocoman, curator emeritus at the National Gallery, has said that Heath’s 1965 book A Dialogue with Solitude was “the most important book produced by any photographer in the 1960s.”

A Dialogue with Solitude is the centrepiece of the Health exhibition. The maquette of the book is framed and displayed page by page, reverenced, like a holy relic of the medium.

The exhibition also includes the first audiovisual slide show that Heath made, in 1969, after he stopped printing photographs to focus on slide shows. In the 1970s and 1980s he also took many Polaroid photos and produced elaborate, mixed-media journals, all of which are represented in an adjacent exhibition curated by the Canadian Photography Institute’s Andrea Kunard.

Throughout the main exhibition are photographs that Heath took around the United States and in Korea. Whether of individuals or situations, they are almost invariably tightly cropped, as if the artist had tightened his focus (in the cognitive and technological sense) on the subject, to better understand the people, the situations, the world around him.

The dominant theme is those unsettled faces. The exhibition is “not artificially optimistic,” Davis says, “it’s about pain and uncertainty.” First come portraits of American soldiers in Korea, their young faces weighted with the brutal reality of their fate and their duty.

There are a few famous faces, most notably Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac. Frequently the frame is full of faces, though the eye is drawn to a particular person, such as a police officer who stands alone in a semi-circle of gawking witnesses to a sudden death.

Elsewhere are moments almost abstract (a young girl walking past an angled, shadowed wall, from 1958), or enigmatic (a women or girl — it’s hard to tell — walking toward a rocky escarpment in Central Park, as if approaching the monolith.) There are images that are gruesome — Window Washer Fallen To His Death, Graybar Building, New York City, 1959 and an unflinching photo of the carcass of a dead dog. 

Dave Heath. Carl Dean Kipper, Korea, 1953–54. Gelatin silver print, 17.1 × 24.7 cm. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc. © Howard Greenberg Gallery and Stephen Bulger Gallery.

There is timelessness. A photograph from Korea shows two soldiers in the near distance, shrouded in mist and seen through a gap in the trees, walking apart as if on sentry duty or patrol. Aside from the modern gear of battle, it could be a scene from most any war in history.  It could be St. Crispin’s Day at Agincourt, where Shakespeare’s Henry V rallied “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”

Heath resumed printing photographs in the 2000s, digitally and in colour. Perhaps the colour makes them seem more open, warmer, more contented when compared to his earlier, black-and-white, sometimes claustrophobic work.

“I think there is more optimism in the later work,” Davis agrees. “I think by that time Dave had worked through at least some of the issues in his life.”

The foreword for A Dialogue with Solitude describes the book as “a self-portrait in which the artist never really appears, but is revealed and interpreted by every detail.” The quote echoes Proust, who wrote that “the voice of the writer in a story should be like the hand of God, felt everywhere and seen nowhere.” Throughout Multitude, Solitude, the hand of Heath is seen not as creator but as interpreter, one who seeks to understand.

We, in turn, seek to understand Heath, though perhaps we should seek other answers in his work. In a journal included in the complementary exhibition he wrote, “The creative process remains a mystery, and the attempt to solve it by seeking out its origins in the artist’s personality seems ultimately both illogical and futile.”

The exhibition continues to Sept. 2.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.