Critics’ Picks

Dave Heath,  Washington  Square, New York City, 1960, gelatin silver print, 6 x 5 1/16”.

Dave Heath, Washington Square, New York City, 1960, gelatin silver print, 6 x 5 1/16”.


Dave Heath

Le Bal
6, Impasse de La Défense
September 14–December 23, 2018

Rather than defining the metropolis by way of its architecture, cultural institutions, or communities, Dave Heath understood the city as a container for those wrestling with melancholic isolation. While serving as a machine gunner in Korea at age twenty-one, he photographed fellow soldiers—lit with an almost painterly Renaissance glow—in moments of self-reflection during cease-fires. Being part of a larger body heightens, rather than resolves, alienation. Heath photographed subjects in Philadelphia, Chicago, Kansas City, and New York, most often in Washington Square Park, but instead of reveling in the theatrical nature of street photography, he spotlighted the loneliness that belies the urban swarm, deftly framing glances that betray unfulfilled longing. Amid the distractions of continual urban movement, he honed in on anguish in plain sight––a psychological sniper.

This retrospective displays one hundred and seventy-five vintage prints and the original maquette of A Dialogue with Solitude, Heath’s major monograph, published in 1965, which distills American postwar malaise into eighty-two images. Three films contemporary to the era—cult examples of cinema verité—are interspersed across both floors, playing at full running time, although The Savage Eye (1960) by Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers, and Joseph Strick has the most direct synchronicity with Heath’s oeuvre. At one point, the film’s protagonist ascribes hypothetical thoughts, in a voice-over, to nameless strangers, highlighting the risibility of attempted mind-reading and, more darkly, the inevitable opacity of the other. After 1970, Heath gave up photography and began teaching at Ryerson University in Toronto, later becoming a Canadian citizen. This seems to be a fitting outcome for someone with no allegiance to the American dream and no interest in propagating its mythology.