JTF (just the facts): A total of 36 black and white photographic works (35 single images and 1 triptych), framed in black and matted, and hung against grey walls in the main gallery space and the book alcove. All of the works are gelatin silver prints (mostly vintage), made between 1953 and 1965. Physical sizes range from roughly 5×7 to 9×14 (or reverse), and no edition information was provided. The main show also includes an artist’s sketchbook containing 26 gelatin silver prints (1960s) and 3 photobooks in a vitrine. The side viewing room contains a maquette of 8 gelatin silver prints (1962) and 3 additional prints, made between 1958 and 1962. And the back gallery contains 10 framed prints from The Human Condition, a 23 print (gelatin silver) portfolio made in 1963. (Installation shots below.)
This gallery show coincides with a traveling museum exhibition now on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (here). The exhibit was organized by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, where it will be on view in 2017. A catalog of the exhibit, entitled Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath has recently been published by Yale University Press (here).
Comments/Context: It’s a gross oversimplification to say that Dave Heath’s photographs from the 1950s and 1960s are overwhelmingly sad, but as a foundation mood on which to build a more complex spread of emotional nuances, it’s a decent place to set an anchor. His lushly nuanced black and white pictures sensitively capture the varied moments of life when the glass is half empty, documenting those times when melancholy, resignation, and quiet anguish come out of the dark shadows and fight their way up to the surface. That an entire gallery can be filled with superlative examples of these difficult emotions is evidence that Heath consciously went looking for them, finding the pockets of isolation and solitude again and again in the bustle of the big city.
While Robert Frank’s visual vignettes from the 1950s captured a previously unnoticed strain of American alienation (and became the landmark photobook The Americans), Heath’s photographs from the same period travel a similarly lonely road. The main difference comes in the measure of distance and space employed by the two photographers – Frank was step or two back, taking in the telling context of a scene, while Heath was right up close, often delving into the private interior space of his subjects. That intimacy manifests itself as portraits that are very tightly cropped (often just a head), bringing us into the area where tiny gestures, passing expressions, and fleeting movements dominate and speak volumes.
Each of Heath’s single subject portraits finds a particular emotional resonance, and seen together, they are like a parade of definitional displays, working their way down the registers of a cooling musical scale. A chin resting on a fist offers pensive melancholy, while a hand placed palm down on a forehead tells a story of unsolvable despair. Wide eyes, chapped lips, and dirty hair remind us of the hard side of everyday existence, and a whispering harmonica tune exhales with sorrow. Steely stares and faces (of soldiers, women, and children alike) speak of getting the job done, enduring unknown and unfixable hardships, and putting on a brave face in even the most disheartening of circumstances. Women often look off into the distance, lost in internal thought, contemplating unknowable problems while taking a despondent puff of a cigarette. People run away, bend a weary elbow over their eyes, stand alone in the rain, and look down (repeatedly) in sighing silence.
When Heath puts two figures in the frame, even an arm draped over a shoulder or a tender touch doesn’t seem to span the yawning chasm between people. One person looks at another while the second looks away, another watches as his spouse departs and doesn’t look back, and a mother and son fail to communicate in time honored mutual frustration. Even when people are physically pushed together, they are separated, alone in a crowd, laughing when others don’t get the joke. Again and again, there is a deadening lack of connection, a pervasive isolation that keeps people from meaningfully engaging with each other. Even a warm snuggle doesn’t seem to satisfy – as his girlfriend curls up on his shoulder, a young man looks off into the distance with the weary weight of stressful resignation, seemingly oblivious to her comforting presence.
The pent up aggression in Heath’s pictures finally boils over in several poignant fight scenes among children. His iconic Vengeful Sister is the epitome of opposing emotions – the sister flouncing off with triumphant glee while the brother lies crumpled and crying in a fetal wail. The rawness of that picture seems absolutely savage compared with the empathetic anguish found in a series of images entitled A Sparrow Fallen, on view in a side room. In it, a group of school aged boys surrounds a single black child, taunting and punching him, leaving him with a battered face and teary eyes – it is nothing short of devastating and heartbreaking, the boy’s tender search for acceptance smashed and broken with uncaring roughness.
Heath’s powerful photographs expose traces of the universal human condition, seething with subtle intensity and sharp pain, and an optimistic reading of their message reminds us of the shared experience in our darker emotions – if Heath can show us these difficult moments with such fidelity, perhaps we can then realize that we are not the only ones feeling these feelings, and to reach out with empathy to others when they appear again. But these pictures aren’t illustrative fables, they’re exactingly nuanced studies of largely unphotographed realities – in a sense, we don’t really want to be bluntly faced with them, but here they are refusing to be overlooked. Heath’s excellent pictures wear us down with their insistence that we are all emphatically alone, and that conclusion is inexorably and depressingly sad even when it is delivered with such consistent elegance and grace. To be faced with such brutal and forceful honesty is both engrossing and disheartening, and I left the gallery worn out, drained by the masterful emotional roller coaster Heath made me ride.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The single image prints and triptych range from $7500 to $28000, with a few NFS. The artist’s sketchbook is $35000 and The Human Condition portfolio is $40000. Heath’s work has had a thin secondary market presence in the past decade, with only a few prints changing hands in any given year. Recent prices at auction have ranged from roughly $2000 to $28000, with the top prices coming for prints of Erin Freed and Vengeful Sister. Heath’s vintage photobook A Dialogue with Solitude is also a collectible rarity, raging in price from roughly $2000 to $6000.