'Photographer Of Isolation' Dave Heath Gets Special Attention In Nelson-Atkins Exhibition

Nov 18, 2016

When Dave Heath died in June at the age of 85, The New York Times described him as a "photographer of isolation."   

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has the largest institutional holding of Heath's work in the United States, and the museum's new exhibition Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath — with nearly 200 photographs from the late 1940s to 2007, from black and white to color — explores themes of loneliness and the desire for connection. 

Heath was born in 1931 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and experienced a troubled childhood. By the age of four, he'd been abandoned by both of his parents; he grew up in a series of foster homes and an orphanage. As a teenager, Heath discovered photography, and he considered it his salvation. 

Keith F. Davis, senior curator of photography at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, has been a fan of Heath's work since the 1970s when he was a student of photography. Davis began acquiring Heath's prints in the 1980s as chief curator of the Hallmark Photographic Collection, which, in 2005, was donated to The Nelson-Atkins. 

"Even at that time, 30 years ago, I recognized that he was better and more important historically than most people seemed to understand," says Davis. "And there were all kinds of prints available at very reasonable prices."

The Nelson-Atkins now has the "best holding" of Heath's work in the United States, says Davis, "by a factor of 10 probably." Heath moved to Toronto, Canada, in 1970, and Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath, curated by Davis, also marks the first major exhibition of Heath's work in the U.S.

"I felt that he was an artist deserving special attention, and we've given that to him," he says.

Here's an extended version of the interview with Keith Davis: 

Dave Heath, Canadian (born United States, 1931-2016). Vengeful Sister, Chicago, 1956.
Credit The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation.

In the process of putting together this exhibition, you corresponded with Dave Heath, but you also spent a few days with him. What was that like? Did you have burning questions? 

"I first met Dave probably 15 years ago, perhaps 20 years ago, I think at a gallery in New York. And he knew I was interested in the work ...

"When this project became real, and I really got into serious research, I did go up and spent two days with him in Toronto. And it was a fantastic couple of days, it was really amazing. I sat down with him at his home. I asked him if he could walk me through his famous book, A Dialogue with Solitude [a suite of 80 photos in 10 chapters] and explain everything about it: every picture, every quotation, every relationship of picture on one side and picture on the other side, why that relationship, why this sequence. And it was really astonishing. I took a lot of notes ... and that was the basis for my writing in the catalogue."

So, were there things that surprised you that he said, or that illuminated the work in a new way? 

"The biggest revelation was the idea that for Dave Heath, as for every great photographer, great artist - what you see and what you think you understand at first glance is the tip of the iceberg.

"In his work in particular, there are layers of meaning. Each layer has validity, it's fascinating, and once you exhaust one layer, there's yet another layer below that. The connectedness of it all, the logic of it all, the deep human emotion of it all ... the richness of that body of work." 

Dave Heath, Canadian (born United States, 1931-2016). Carl Dean Kipper, Korea, 1953-54.
Credit The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation.

He had a really sad childhood, (he was) raised in an orphanage, and a series of foster homes. But it seems like photography really changed his worldview. 

"I think it's very safe to say that he had a challenging childhood. He was abandoned by both parents by the age of 4 and raised in an orphanage and foster homes in the Philadelphia area. And that, the emotional reality of that, the perception and reality of being abandoned by both your parents at the age of 4, he never got over that. That shaped the foundation of who he was ... It also gave him the kind of emotional reach and power to create a body of work of enormous integrity and enormous importance. 

"But art was his lifeline. He was not an artist because it was fun, or cool or interesting. He was an artist because he had to be. 

"Our show debuted at the Philadelphia Art Museum a year ago. Dave was there for the opening and we had a public conversation with him. And at one point he said, very quietly but very seriously: 'Art saved my life.' And it's nothing less than that. It's an incredibly big and profound idea, and I think it's a reminder of what we really want from art ... we want something grander, and bigger and more inclusive than just entertainment.

"And Dave Heath's body of work is a profound view of a person and the human condition."

Dave Heath, Canadian (born United States, 1931-2016). Drowning Scene, Central Park, New York City, 1957.
Credit The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation.

The exhibition includes black and white photographs, as well as color works from the last decade or so. There's similar subject matter, with street photography, and (for example), you see hands again referenced in his later works. Could you talk about the themes that continued through his long career? 

"The show that I've curated really has as a central thread the idea of street photography. Dave did other things in his career, but for me the strongest unifier, the strongest continuous thread, is this notion of him with a camera, out on the public sidewalk, looking at his fellow citizens. So that's the big connecting theme.

"And he was the master of black and white printing. The prints that he made up through the 1960s are magnificent ... he shifted gears after that, he began doing audio visual programs in 1969, he was shooting Polaroids in the 1980s and 90s (we don't have that work represented), but he came back to street photography in 2001 with a digital camera, working in color.

"This show does include a really beautiful sequence of those last pictures from the 21st century. They look different, because they're larger and they're in color, but the basic feeling and the basic artistic intention is really the same."

'Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath,' November 19, 2016 - March 19, 2017, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak Street, Kansas City, Missouri. 816-561-4000. 

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @lauraspencer.