They were captured, pinned down by Dave Heath (1931–2016) with such precision that their faces will haunt you. They’ve been singled out. Heath surreptitiously plucked them out of their reality, erasing the surroundings, as if to wrap them in a new dimension of his own imagination, and of which he would be the absolute master.
Did he want to keep them safe from possible disappearance? His was a gentle, furtive abduction. Or, if we believe the title of the exhibition at the Miranda gallery in Paris, Alone, Together, Heath may have wanted to join this anonymous community incognito… Did he desire to belong, even while keeping his distance? Of course, we know what photographers, and not only photographers, are like: they don’t enjoy people stepping on their toes.
Whose faces are these? Strangers encountered here and there, notably in Washington Square in New York, and who, with rare exceptions, had no awareness of being photographed. The street certainly is David Heath’s domain, but it is not his hunting ground, and he is not out to trap pigeons. He carefully picks his models in the crowd, and they all possess a gravitas, and this shows: it’s as if each one, beyond the shock of surprise, had literally been transformed into blotting paper.
There’s no need to dance around the fact: these are exceptional prints that you must go and see, and, why not, acquire… They were made by Heath himself between 1959 and 1966, and taken in New York City and in his native Philadelphia.
What sets Heath apart, explains the gallery owner Miranda Salt, is “a certain modesty. His compositions are never heavy-handed just to show off his talents. The image comes first. [Heath] is modest, but also subtle, he lets people touch us by their fragility. There is no pathos, no social violence, but only daily life. This is the postwar boom, a time when society was in upheaval, the time of the Vietnam War, among other things.”
Abandoned at the age of four by his parents (as well as, what misery, by his grandparents), Heath was shuffled between orphanages and foster homes. While, to start with, photography served as a refuge, it became, through his studies and encounters, a real dialogue, as indicated by the title of his cult book, A Dialogue with Solitude, published in 1965 by A Community Press (and republished in 2000 by Lumiere Press with a letter from Robert Frank).
However, there is no question of either killing the mood or of giving hope. What interests Heath, and what the 2018 exhibition at the BAL in Paris in 2018 had underscored, is setting these people in motion, and above all “translating … a sense of the world, a lived experience: the tension in the public space between the constrained proximity of the bodies and the isolation of the individuals, lost in themselves.”
“He has touched the intangible,” concludes Miranda Salt, who is unable to name a favorite image: she loves them all.
«Seuls, ensemble », Miranda Gallery, 21 rue du Château d’eau, 75010 Paris, Until May 6.
Le Bal, 6, Impasse de la Défense, 75018, Paris.