Dave Heath's filters loneliness through a lens

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Photographer Dave Heath and Museum visitors in Heath’s exhibition Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath.

In his 1965 book, A Dialogue With Solitude, Philadelphia-born photographer and master printmaker Dave Heath looked at the loneliness of the soldier in Korea, of the sullen beatnik in the coffeehouse, the motherless child alone in a park, the lovers turned away from each other, City Hall in darkly uneasy repose.

That withdrawal from society even in the midst of a swarming crowd is what has always informed his aesthetic judgments in chiaroscuro tones. You can see them at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in "Multitude, Solitude" which focuses on Heath's work from the 1940s through the '60s.

"I have been photographing for 60 years, and something in me always hoped my work would survive," Heath, 84, said at a gathering of museum members after the opening of the show, his first major retrospective, which runs through Feb. 21.

Born in Philadelphia in 1931, he was abandoned by his mother at 4, rejected by his grandparents, and grew up in a sad cycle of foster homes, temporary families, and an orphanage. No art school; he taught himself photography spurred by an interest in graphic art and Life magazine, then the country's premier photographic vehicle, and his yearning for connection. He watched as his work fell out of fashion in favor of wryly satirical Pop Art and the glumly ironic photos of Robert Frank (whose stark, neo-realist black-and-whites Heath's work in some ways resembles) and Diane Arbus.

"There was a real turn away from human expression, passion, and earnestness in the '60s and '70s toward the ironic, which is why Dave's work wasn't as famous as it should've been," says Peter Barberie, curator of photographs at the Art Museum and one of the architects of the Heath show. "It is, however, really powerful work, then and now. His achievements have never been matched by the recognition he deserves."

Heath's expressive range from dark to light encompassed not just his work as a photographer but also as a superb darkroom technician and printmaker whose highly developed levels of dodging and burning - techniques to lighten or darken parts of an image - were as intuitive and developed as the view from the lens.

"My first foster mom took me to Leary's Bookstore next to Gimbels, where you could buy old art books and geography books for a quarter," Heath says of his childhood forays into art, of (re)arranging the world according to his vision. "I would cut them up and make booklet presentations for brownie points with teachers.

"My mom didn't direct me, but she offered advice" - an example of grace that moved a boy whose youth was frequently disrupted by the temporal nature of foster care and the absence of traditional parenting.

By 1947, when he was 16, he was drawing inspiration from Life magazine's photography, particularly its layout for Ralph Crane's essay "Bad Boy's Story," with its take on broken families and loneliness. "That was my story, starting fires in the kitchen sink when no one was home," he says. "I wanted to know the raison d'etre behind how others shot what they shot."

But Kuder Preference Tests told him he had more aptitude for art than for journalism, despite his keen interest in the latter. So he found a way to combine the two, and the stark sharpness of photojournalism plus the luster of art photography came to define him.

Heath read John R. Whiting's Photography is a Language ("Loved that title"), joined camera clubs, built his own camera "with a lens from a microscope," and bought film from a store near Germantown High School. He graduated to a Brownie 600 and took the looming overcast snap of City Hall in 1949 - one of the first photos in the show. He worked for architectural photographers ("It was so cold out I dropped the lens. There went that job") and "kidnappers" (an old term for baby photographers) before serving as a combat infantryman in Korea, where he bought Plus X film at the PX and shot lonely soldiers with a Kodak Retina.

Along with his vision, there was the manner in which he created his essays and printed his photos, immaculately crafted, and orchestrated and sequenced to make a story. "I always knew that I needed to make good prints, even when I didn't have a great sense of aesthetics," Heath says with a laugh, pointing out photos of soldiers walking along dusty trails, with a blackened foreground of dead vegetation that highlights the figures and provides its own intensity, now silken due to Heath's touch, the "art of dodging and burning."

After Korea, he moved into the "small gallery culture of New York City" and its coffeehouses filled with Beat poets, and, in 1970, relocated to Toronto, where he still lives. He continued with his street photography; his only book, A Dialogue With Solitude, is a prominent focus of the current show.

Solitude. Loneliness. The search for connection. Heath's works seem intimate even when he is not close to his subjects.

"There is a dialogue in work, and it's always candid . . .. but I never talked to people . . . so it's mostly telephoto lenses tight in frame," he says. "I was shy but had a need for people. This is how I reached them - brought people to me without getting squashed."

Asked how it felt to return to the city of his birth, which had never before given him a solo show, Heath smiled and said, "It's all right. I'm still a little anxious about it all, but it's getting better" - he surveyed the gallery - "just sitting here."


ART

Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath

 

Through Feb. 21 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Information:

215-763-8100 or

philamuseum.org