This review of Multitude, Solitude has been authored and kindly provided by Michael Meadows.
Shortly after reading the recent revelations regarding Steve McCurry’s photoshopped photographs, I stumbled upon an obituary of a photographer named Dave Heath. I didn’t know about him, but the obituary characterized him as a street photographer and an acclaimed master printmaker. It wasn’t the acclaim that attracted me; it was the lead photograph in the obituary which I found to be utterly engrossing and that grabbed my full attention. That photo, titled Vengeful Sister, is reproduced below.
The story this photo tells is immediately and unmistakably clear, and its very deep tones and contrasting crisp highlights all combine to produce a dark vision of humanity that instantly captivated me. At the same time that I was entranced, questions flooded my mind. How real is this photo? How was it made? How was it printed? Is it journalism, or was it drastically “improved” like some of McCurry’s best have been found to be? How to learn the answers?
I followed up, hoping to find more photographs by Dave Heath and more information about him and his methods, and I succeeded to find and purchase the photobook Multitude, Solitude, The Photographs of Dave Heath. This large, 28×28 cm, very well-printed book turned out to hold all the evidence I could wish.
Multitude, Solitude contains 172 black and white plates, a few of which are interspersed with the text below. (My reproductions from the book are teasers only and do not, cannot, fully or faithfully reproduce the very important tonal ranges that they in fact contain.) The book also contains two interesting, long essays which recount Heath’s atypical life, the influences which shaped it, and which offer a critique of his work. But even after studying all this, I am still unsure regarding answers to my questions.
Dave Heath (b1931, Philadelphia, USA) led a tragic childhood. His father abandoned the family when Dave was one year old; his mother left him with her parents at age four and disappeared; his grandparents immediately rejected him. So Dave grew up mostly in a sequence of depressing foster homes and a Jewish orphanage. Rejection and isolation made this man who would relate to others through his photography and would develop into a master printer.
Heath discovered photography as a means of learning about the world. Newspaper reports and photos of the Second World War and the photojournalism that flourished in Life and other magazines during his adolescence kindled his interest in pictures, and he took up the camera at about age 15. His first serious photos were made in Korea where he photographed his fellow soldiers. Returning to Philadelphia after his military service, he studied photography and began his career in street photography. But he rather quickly gave up those studies and moved to Chicago where he worked in photo labs while he honed his skills at street photography.
Interesting photos from these two periods appear in Multitude, Solitude, but Heath didn’t develop into the master photographer/printer that he ultimately became until after he moved to New York City in 1957. There he encountered W. Eugene Smith, a Life Magazine photojournalist and a somewhat difficult character who blazed a distinctive trail for his exceptional photographs through his use of then-unconventional darkroom methods. It was from Smith that Heath acquired the temerity to transform his own photographs from predominantly straight but elegant prints into dramatic icons through the use of very deep burning, and highlight bleaching, two techniques which a photographer can use to direct and fix a viewer’s attention by suppressing any and all distractions.
The page reproduced above shows how Heath elevated the last photo of a sequence from a good but somewhat pedestrian image into the dark but universal melodrama that captivated me. He didn’t hesitate to crop, and he almost completely suppressed the children’s surroundings to transform their situation into one lit as if by stage lighting in a theater. In accomplishing this, his technique is all but invisible: one can’t quite believe that the scene is rendered naturally, but one cannot, either, detect from the completed image how the deed was done.
Another example of Heath’s working methods is the pair of images below. For this image Heath again used cropping, burning and bleaching to focus attention on the woman and the signs that appear nearby.
I found these two examples very helpful. They both show fairly extensive manipulation of the straight negatives: items in the negatives have been removed via cropping, while others have been altogether suppressed via burning. So how does Heath’s extensive control during printing compare to the wholesale alterations that occur in examples of McCurry’s work?
Dodging and burning have most likely been accepted darkroom means since the advent of photography itself. These techniques were traditionally used to darken print borders to better contain a composition, to burn highlights to bring them into better tonal alignment with the rest, to burn and darken some picture elements in order to emphasize others and to achieve many other visual goals. All these and other darkroom techniques are considered fair game and don’t jeopardize the inherent “journalistic truth” of an image. Each photographer finds an accomodation with these techniques: from Winogrand who like very straight low-contrast prints with open shadows through Kudelka who prefers contrastier prints with more closed shadows. The choices made regarding these techniques (or their digital equivalents) is like a fingerprint embedded in each print and that characterizes a master’s work.
But Smith and then Heath broke the mould of previously accepted use, because they burned very heavily to sometimes eliminate background objects or settings. And then they would bleach highlights, producing severe dramatic contrast beyond what could be achieved with different grades of paper or with polycontrast papers. All this in order not only to focus attention but to restrict attention to what they wanted the viewer to see in their photographs. McCurry’s means have changed, but his goal seems to be the same as that of Smith and Heath. Why then, is Smith considered by many to be a photojournalist, Heath an artistic street photographer and McCurry an embarrassment to his profession? Is the difference simply a matter of degree? When does such suppression produce a lie rather than a justifiable emphasis?
One of the very interesting aspects of this book is that it contains a long section of the 82 photographs that constitute Heath’s definitive book A Dialogue with Solitude (1965). Seven of the photographs I have reproduced are taken from that publication. The section is important for two reasons.
First, it is an illustration of what Heath intended to mean with his photos: from his Preface – “Disenchantment, strife and anxiety enshround our times in stygian darkness. Pressed from all sides by the rapid pace of technological progress and increased authoritarian control, many people are caught up in an anguish of alientation. Adrift and without a sense of purpose, they are compelled to engage in a dialogue with the inmost depths of their being in a search for renewal; the burden of anarchy rests heavily upon them.”
Second, the section gains added importance, because the book’s long essay by Keith Davis contains a aub-section in which he analyzes the sequencing that Heath chose for his book. I especially profited from this section, because I regard sequencing as something of a black art. Photographers expend considerable effort on the exact sequence of photos or the juxtaposition of photos in each double page spread, because this aspect of a collection magnifies the photographer’s message, and it has a powerful influence on the overall impression that viewers carry away. I found it very instructive, and this analysis transported me beyond the impression alone to show how the sequencing produced that impression. Moreover, it showed how sequencing demands a laser-like focus on the purpose and meaning of a collection, if it is to have any success at all.
Have I come to answers to my questions? Partly, yes. Mostly, no. But my experience with these photos of Dave Heath’s certainly has given me greater insight into the endeavor called photography and provided me with much that I continue to chew on.
Multitude, Solitude also contains other major sections: one of Heath’s early photos, one of another book by Heath, one of later street portraits made with a long lens and one of color photos from 2001-2007. The book is being distributed by Yale University Press as the catalog for a retrospective exhibition of Heath’s work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art which closed in early 2016. The book is currently available from the usual sources.