Chances are you haven’t heard of Dave Heath. The American photographer, who quietly documented post-WWII US society, has flown under the radar. This is his first major UK show, and despite only being two rooms, ‘Dialogues with Solitudes’ packs a big emotional punch.
Striving to capture people’s ‘inner landscapes’, Heath’s black-and-white portraits focus on quiet moments of solitary contemplation. As a soldier in Korea, he beautifully documented his fellow soldiers lost in thought, looking exhausted and haunted. Once he went back, moving to New York, he continued to seek out lost souls in private moments of self-reflection, longing, pain and ennui. Heath photographed strangers off in their own worlds, disconnected from those around them, isolated by their internal monologues. Like so many other great street photographers, Heath manages to capture people seemingly unnoticed. The subjects appear like ghostly characters in a film, made more intriguing by the lack of any back-story.
With Heath’s photos, you’re left to make up your own. It’s only when you see the way they were paired and curated for the layout of his 1965 book ‘A Dialogue with Solitude’ that you can start to glimpse the meaning he attached to them. Although these snatched moments look like simple candid shots, Heath was a skilful printer and photo manipulator, subtly directing the narrative through canny crops, cuts and highlights.
Heath definitely erred towards the darker side of the human condition: from melancholy and malaise to downright misery. There’s only one image of a person laughing in the whole show. But despite the potentially depressing vibe, this collection is powerful and poignant. As downbeat as Heath’s photos are, it’s about time they had a wider exposure.