STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
“At 84 years old, he’s finally getting his due,” commented Norman Keyes, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s director of communications.
Keyes was speaking of photographer Dave Heath, who had a heartbreaking childhood as an orphan in Philadelphia, and went on to be “celebrated in (his) day,” according to Keith F. Davis of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.
Heath’s early-career black and white photography from the 1950s and 1960s is the subject of “Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath,” on view through Feb. 21 in the Art Museum’s ground floor Honickman and Berman Galleries.
Heath, who at one point in his career taught at the Moore College of Art, captured Philadelphia’s City Hall as it looked in 1948, an African-American family outdoors watching the Mummers Parade in 1951 and other arresting historical images of the city.
Being abandoned by his parents in the 1930s at the age of 4 had an indelible effect on Heath’s photography. Themes of loss, uncertainty and searching for one’s self identity run throughout the exhibition, especially in a page-by-page breakdown of a draft version of Heath’s 1965 signature monograph series, “A Dialogue with Solitude.” Yet there are also elements of hope, love and a desire for human connection.
“There’s an emotionality to the work,” said Stephen Perloff, who was covering a media preview of “Multitude, Solitude” for The Photo Review. The photographer admired Heath’s use of shadow and light.
From Heath’s own words in the exhibition: “There was some deeper sense within myself of survival, of having to define and declare myself on my own terms, and not in other people’s terms. And the way I found to do that was through being an artist.”
You’ll find contrasts from a crowd gathered in New York’s Central Park, to lost-in-thought individuals in cities stretching from Boston to Dayton, Ohio to Chicago to St. Louis to San Francisco. There’s also candid portraits taken in Korea in 1953-1954, during Heath’s service in the Army. There are cameos by “Beat” writers Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso and a video recreation of one of Heath’s audio-visual slide shows — something he became known for in the ‘70s, Davis said, because of their deeply empathetic presentation.
Just like in his slide shows, Heath’s narrative and sequencing of his photographs could take dramatic turns. For example, “A Dialogue with Solitude” features a picture of a crowd gathered around a street fight between two men, placed next to another of two boys alone in an alley, the older one appearing to be in the act of striking the younger one.
Davis pointed out a 1968 image of a crumpled print that Heath had put in the trash one day, along with a bunch of other imperfect prints he was throwing away. When Heath discovered it had been dropped by the trash haulers — the only one of the discards that got left behind — it triggered an emotional response and he snapped a picture of it.
In 1970, Heath moved to Toronto, where he headed the photography program at Ryerson University for many years. His work is in the permanent collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Nelson-Atkins Museum (which organized “Multitude, Solitude”), the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.
“He’s always been an artist, and he’s always been busy. But he’s flown below so many people’s radars,” Davis said, noting that Heath developed a reputation over the years for being reclusive.
“There’s so many great things of his that had been squirreled away.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath.”
When: Through Feb. 21.
Where: The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Benjamin Franklin Parkway and 26th Street, Philadelphia.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, until 8:45 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays. Closed Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Admission: $20, $18 for seniors 65+, $14 for students and youths 13-18, free to members, “pay what you wish” the first Sunday of the month and after 5 p.m. Wednesdays.
Info.: Call (215) 763-8100 or visit www.philamuseum.org, www.facebook.com/philamuseum, @philamuseum on Twitter and Instagram, @philamuseum on Tumblr.