With New Exhibition, Philadelphia Museum of Art Finds Itself in Excellent Heath


Dave Heath enjoys the company of great writing from the likes of William Butler Yeats and Hermann Hesse. So much so, in fact, that he has quotes from each — in addition to numerous other literary figures — accompanying his stark black and white photographs stretching along all sides of the gallery walls at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Heath, 84, a native Philadelphian — he currently lives in Toronto — is the subject of the new exhibition, “Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath” at the museum, which will be on display through Feb. 21.

The photos depict harrowing scenes from his time in the Korean War, as well as a selection of the faces and places he found during his time in Philadelphia, Chicago and New York City.

A key highlight of the exhibition is the series of photographs from his definitive works in the 1950s and ’60s laid out in the order they appear on the pages of Heath’s 1965 book, A Dialogue with Solitude, including his introduction — the first time that has ever been done. The quotes on the walls, from Hesse to Yeats, Robert Louis Stevenson, T.S. Eliot and more, were all of his own choosing.

There are glass cases showing the original pages of his maquettes — or handmade photographic books — featuring more photographs that showed his experimentation with style and the process of “bleaching,” which combines dark and light elements of the photograph that determine how the eye moves through a picture.

Even if you are completely unfamiliar with Heath or photography terms or even photography in general, the series is striking and the connection to human emotion is palpable. Close-ups on strangers he found in parks, a shot of a pile of bullets from his time in the service, couples kissing: It’s “finding beauty in tough circumstances,” Keith Davis, senior photography curator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., said of the photographs. Davis put together a book about Heath for the exhibition, and has met the 84-year-old photographer multiple times.

Self-taught, Heath started photographing in 1948, crediting photo essays published in Life magazine as some of his early influences. He did much of his early work in Philadelphia as shown through the first section of the exhibit featuring his earliest photography — there were also pictures of people riding the El in pages of the maquette displayed in that section.

His Jewish heritage played a big role in his upbringing and later his entire body of work, Davis said.

His mother was Jewish and he was actually named after his mother’s grandfather who was a rabbi in Russia, but Heath’s father was Christian, which led to many problems common to interfaith relationships of the time.

His father abandoned Heath when he was 3 and his mother ran away and disappeared a year later, leaving him to grow up in orphanages and foster homes, including The Foster Home for Hebrew Orphans in Germantown.

But his Jewish background remained a critical piece of his identity even from a young age.

“That gave Dave this split identity, but overall, he’s absolutely identified with being a Jew and the Jewish heritage and what that means,” Davis said, adding that it was a “complicated sense of identity, which is, of course, key to his whole body of work.”

Because of that, Davis continued, his upbringing became a “quest for understanding of identity and relationships with others — relationships with other people, relationships with history, with cultural traditions.”

“All of his work really is ultimately about the challenge of coming to grips with, ‘Where do I fit in?’” he said. “It’s especially fraught in his work, I think, because of the real psychological trauma he felt he went through early on, but that dual religious/cultural identity right up front is certainly part of that.”

Despite having a published work and garnering admiration from his peers over the years, Heath is not too well-known, which is why Davis wanted this exhibition to come to life.

He worked with Peter Barberie, curator of photographs at the museum, to bring the exhibition to Philadelphia before it makes its to way to the Nelson-Atkins, which will be its final stop.

“It’s a wonderful homecoming for Heath,” Barberie said.

The exhibition is a way for audiences to enjoy Heath’s photographs, whether it is the first time they have ever heard of him or are already familiar with his works, Davis said.

“I’ve known of Dave’s work for 40 years, and I felt very strongly that he was completely deserving of a serious work. I think he’s the most important figure from that period that has not had a major book or exhibition until now,” he said.

“The subject is always the sense of connection or disconnection. It’s the integrity of the work,” he explained. “The work has a great human power and a great kind of artistic and human honesty. He’s not playing games, he’s not trying to be clever in any way. He’s dealing as honestly as he can with very deep and real human emotional issues. That kind of integrity and directness and poetry all wrapped up together is very rich and really kind of inspiring.”

The exhibition also displays his “street pictures” taken between 1962 and 1968, after being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. This work focuses more on crowds — the “Multitudes” in the exhibit — than faces as his earlier work had done.

“It’s a powerful artistic, visual and emotional experience and it’s a great body of work that we should know,” Davis said. “There’s something really special about his body of work that stays with you and I think any viewer that comes in and really gives it a chance will get that feeling.”

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