DAVE HEATH (“POLAROID PROJECT” II)
[In the early 1980’s my wife Susie Cohen and I, supported in part by Eelco Wolf, spent several years working on a collaborative venture which the four artists Robert Frank, Dave Heath, Robert Heinecken, and John Wood, to create an exhibition and book. For want of a better term, we loosely called this the “Polaroid project” among ourselves, although it was never an official Polaroid Corporation program of any kind. This work, although completed, was never published; but rumors and fragments of the work have surfaced over the years, and from time to time individuals have wanted to know more about the event. I’ve decided to publish some of the materials and information from or about the project on this blog as time and conditions warrant. The approach is informative, not scholarly. I will attempt to be as accurate as possible about these events, but I am primarily working from memory about events that happened thirty years ago. Nevertheless, I hope that you enjoy the work.
Born in 1931 and soon abandoned by his mother, Dave Heath grew up “in the system.” Moved by a 1949 LIFE magazine photographic essay about an orphan boy, Dave began learning to photograph, but then was drafted and served as a machine gunner in Korea. Returning to civilian life, he briefly studied art at the Philadelphia College of Art and the Institute of Design in Chicago, supporting himself as an assistant to a number of commercial photographers, and honing his technical skills. This period saw the development of better 35mm cameras, faster lenses and films, which led to an efflorescence of photographic activity known as “available light” photography, or “street” photography. These new technologies allowed a photographer to participate less intrusively within the flow of life around them and capture more of the seemingly casual or more intimate moments from those fluxing events. The leading professional photographers of the time included Henri Cartier-Bresson, who coined the term “The Decisive Moment,” and W. Eugene Smith, the former LIFE photojournalist who was the acknowledged master of the humanistic photographic essay. By 1959 Heath was in New York, where he took some “Photography made Difficult” seminars offered by W. Eugene Smith. Dave incorporated at least two major concepts from Smith into his own photographic practice. The first was the use of the well-crafted, “fine” photographic print, then unusual in photojournalism. Secondly, Smith felt the most valuable use of photography consisted of the narrative photographic essay, where individual photographs were linked together in an expressive order and combined with texts to create a work more compelling than any loose cluster of individual photographs. Dave began considering the body of work about a topic, rather than any individual photographs, as the most significant and complete use of his creativity.
Dave made 35mm black and white photographs of events and activities around him in a style that could loosely be termed documentary or journalistic. But his images were so deeply personal that they positioned Dave at the fringes of the professional photojournalistic or commercial photographic community that dominated photographic practice at the time. He fit into the small but growing community of expressive photographers who were evolving around the widely scattered centers of interest at the Museum of Modern Art in New York or the Art Institute of Chicago, or later, at the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY; and whose work was published in small, specialist publications rather in the large commercial magazines such as LIFE or Look. (1)
While living in New York Dave saw a copy of Robert Frank’s Les Americains. This book was published by Robert Delpire in France in 1958 and as The Americans a year later in the USA. Dave has stated that he was overwhelmed when he first saw a copy of the book; both by the images and by their ordering in a book format. It is difficult today, when dozens of books by or about photographers are published each year, to understand how difficult it was to get a book of serious photographs published at that time. And it also was almost impossible at the time for the photographer to gain any significant editorial control of the publication as well. Heath had established his reputation within the creative photography community with a 1963 exhibition “A Dialogue with Solitude,” a series of photographs expressing his feelings of the existential isolation in the contemporary world. But it took Dave more than an additional two years to get the book A Dialogue with Solitudepublished. He did this by working with a job printer who sporadically published sections of the book between their more lucrative commercial jobs. Nevertheless, after many difficulties, Dave was able to shepherd his own design and layout through to publication and produce a book that has since become iconic of that period. (2)
Heath subsequently won two Guggenheim Fellowships, but by the late 1960s he had almost stopped his street photography, as he turned his interest to creating work in another new medium. In an era when even the most famous photographers held little hope of getting a complete body of their work before the public in a book format or even in an exhibition, and as for Dave the creative “work” did not consist of random isolated beautiful photographs but of an organized body of images and texts, he found an interesting solution to his problem. Dave began developing slide/sound tape programs, where he combined clusters of 35mm slides, taped music and voice-over narration into a comprehensive narrative/expressive work which could be presented to an audience with linked groups of Kodak Carousel projectors and tape recorders. This type of presentation was used by advertising and business firms in the 1970s and 1980s to sell their products, but I don’t know of any other artist who seriously attempted to use this technology to develop a body of creative work.
For nearly fifteen years Dave Heath mounted thematic slide presentations which frequently used vernacular photographs, such as Le Grand album ordinaire (1973) and Ars Moriendi : A Masque (1980). This hybrid medium, resting somewhere between a book, an exhibition format, and a moving picture, in the types of demands and rewards it offers to its viewers; provided a fascinating extension of the possibilities of the still photograph; but it was deeply hampered by the fragility and complexity of the delivery system, which often demanded the author’s actual presence to run the cranky machinery.
The slide/tape Ars Moriendi is, in part, a summation of his thirty-three-year career as a creative photographer and, in part, a resolution of a turbulent period in his emotional life; which is a common theme that runs throughout Dave’s work regardless of the format or presentation
Dave moved to Toronto in 1970 to teach at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. The Polaroid SX-70 Land camera was introduced in 1972. This was the first automatic folding single-lens reflex camera which made self-developing instant photographs. Dave, after a hiatus of years, began to photograph again with this and subsequent improved versions of this camera. Dave was now photographing again in his old manner, capturing glimpses of the flow of life around him, but doing so with a style adapted to the limits of the Polaroid system. Dave quickly developed a style that seems effortless, almost simple, in its presentation of the people and things he saw and felt drawn to photograph around him. In fact, there was a great deal of skill involved in overcoming some serious difficulties with that camera system. Designed primarily for amateurs to set up a group portrait posed standing about eight feet away and lit with an on-camera flash, the lenses were limited, and the camera less than flexible. Its great advantages were its immediacy and the color. But it was not unobtrusive; for a hand camera it was bulky and noisy and the most serious difficulty was that there was a time delay between pressing the shutter and the actual taking of the picture. It was fractions of a second, but long enough that if the photographer was working up close in a fluid situation the subject could change expression or move, changing the relationship between the forms or even the composition of a picture. In other words the components used to create an expressive picture could change from what the photographer saw and what the camera captured. So Dave had to learn to not photograph exactly what he saw, but to anticipate what he thought the subject would look like a few moments after he saw it. Dave’s did this very well and his photographs have such immediacy and authority that a viewer doesn’t even question them. Once again, Dave’s practice was to photograph over a period of time, then gather and select those images and texts into an expressive, often poetical, statement about his life and times. The creative work was not the individual photographs, but the combined essay. He presented these works under the series title “Songs of Innocence,” usually in the format of a gallery exhibition.
I’ve reprinted a review that I wrote about a similar exhibition that Dave had at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1983, which describes Dave’s practice during this time:
“…‘Dew World, or, Dancing with Frenzy before God,’ which is clearly autobiographical, presents the most recent extension of this artist’s life and creative aims. “Dew World” has the flavor of a diary or a journal. Heath has kept journals over extensive periods in his past, but it is a journal moderated and organized by the rigorous and selective eye of the creative artist.
The exhibition is best experienced not as a grouping of individual photographs, but as one continual sequence of thirty-nine interrelated pieces. Each piece or “frame” consists of a pairing of one to four Polaroid color prints in a 14 x 18 overmat with a three to six line text letraset on the overmat. Except for the final frame, which is an excerpt from a poem by the Zen poet Shinkichi Takahashi, the poetic texts are all written by Heath. These texts present his own responses to and reflections on those events portrayed in the photographs in each frame. Concerns that appear in these frames range from the specific and the personal
Last night in New York:
tiredness, a waning moon
and good company
The crab of memory
drowns in sweet lilac fragrance –
will she write to me?
to his reflections on his art…
At every street corner people rushing by each other-
I stuff them into my eyes like a pocket full of change
to his responses to the larger world:
Gaiety and dread as the 20th Century flies insanely on
crossing the border.
Heath has tied his private individual perceptions of the ordinary events in his daily life to expressions of the broadest human concerns and feelings. His annealing of photographic images and texts in each frame of “Dew World” allows Heath to awaken a more extended range of emotional and intellectual perceptions and thus draw out a greater complexity of response from each viewer. The authority and believability that resides in the photographic medium lends specificity and immediacy to the events and people presented. The softened focus and rich colors of the Polaroid images add a mood of sensuality and emotional weight. The words, reflecting Heath’s feelings about the past impinging on present relationships or referring to his moods and thoughts while making the photographs, contextualize the images and give them a specific flavor.
As with all poetry, “Dew World” can be read on a general level and delight can be drawn from the richness and beauty of the imagery; or, with a closer knowledge of the events of the artist’s life and the dimensions of his thought, the work will present additional levels of meaning and expression to the viewer. The title “Dew World or, Dancing with Frenzy before God” refers to Heath’s wide-ranging search for meaning in his life and in his art. “Dew World” is an image drawn from the corpus of Zen literature and it represents the effervescence and brevity of life. “Dancing with Frenzy before God” refers to the Jewish King David’s ecstatic dance of celebration before the Ark of the Covenant. Heath has drawn from both of these systems of organized thought to establish the referential frame for his work. As Heath has said to me, he wanted to “celebrate and honor all the ordinariness of life. . .to perceive one’s relationship to the world and one’s relationship to the Godhead through respecting all of the multiplicity of God’s creativity in the world.”
“Dew World” isn’t a doctrinaire tract—it’s an intimate expression of Heath’s pleasure at having achieved, at age fifty-two, a mature acceptance of life’s complexities, pains, and pleasures. And his photographs, intimate and glowing with color and light, allow the viewer to share some measure of his struggles and successes.” (3)
Dave’s autobiographical documentation in his photographic practice was at this point when Susie and I asked him to join the collaborative project which became loosely known as the “Polaroid Project.” (Go to the piece on Robert Frank on this same blog for additional background on this project.) When the artists decided that each would create an original 16 page signature for the proposed book, naturally Dave incorporated his experiences of participating in the project into his own signature. He set up his signature with the project events on the left-hand pages and his other experiences during this same time-period on the right-hand pages. So Dave’s signature became the most complete – and certainly the most expressive—visual document of the event.
DAVE HEATH’S SIXTEEN-PAGE ARTIST’S SIGNATURE FOR THE COLLABORATIVE PROJECT.
(1) For example, The Catechist 1:5 (Feb. 1968).
(2) A Dialogue with Solitude, by Dave Heath. Culpepper, Va.: Community Press, 1965.
(3) Views: the Journal of Photography in New England 5:1 (1983): 19.