Issue #223  4/4/2016
Photo Books: The Definitive Dave Heath; Iceland and Oceans

By Matt Damsker

Catalogue accompanying the recent exhibition of the same name at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Published by the Hall Family Foundation in association with the Nelson-Atkins Museum, distributed by Yale University Press. Hardbound; 322 pgs.; approximately 100 black-and-white and color plates. ISBN No. 978-0-300-20825-2. Information: http://www.yalebooks.com/art.

Dave Heath's photography of the 1950s and '60s is probably more familiar to people than they realize. His richly toned, black-and-white street shots of urban faces and figures--from crying children to unsmiling adults--are among the definitive, face-in-the-crowd emblems of modern alienation and disconnection, just as powerful and poignant today as when he shot them.

He is certainly worthy of fresh discovery, and last year the Philadelphia Museum of Art did Heath, a native son of the city, proud. As organized by Keith F. Davis of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. (where the show concluded in March), it was the first comprehensive survey of Heath's early work, cleanly mounted by the Philadelphia museum's photography curator Peter Barberie, and delivered to posterity superbly via this catalogue.

Born in Philadelphia in 1931, Heath, who now lives in Toronto, was abandoned at age four to foster homes and orphanages until he was 16, when he was inspired by a photo essay on foster care in Life magazine. Largely self-taught, he took courses in commercial art, learned processing by working in a photo lab, and took his camera with him as a soldier in the Korean War, where he captured the loneliness of his fellow recruits and conscripts. Inspired by the tonalities and emotional directness of W. Eugene Smith and Robert Frank, he relocated to New York City in 1957 and began to garner recognition.

Heath is an unfussy yet deceptively careful chronicler of his subjects. What may seem like almost casual photos of everyday people, many shot with a telephoto lens, are culled from many possibilities, yet the naturalism of his subjects is never compromised. His images of soldier buddies in Korea are, in some cases, formal masterworks, especially a 1953-54 shot of Dean Kipper, seen reclining on his bunk, arm over head, a pensive, sculptural icon in deep shadow.

Heath's genius for candid chiaroscuro carries throughout his work, but upon his return to America, he seemed less concerned with classic figuration than with the sheer power of faces and the opaque interiority of their expressions. Thus, his '50s street shots of African-Americans in Philadelphia's poor enclaves, or of middle-class whites in Center City, portray people deeply alone within themselves and their unknowable travails. Couples walking together seem palpably distant from each other, while children are unselfconsciously lost in immaturity, especially the images of grimy Chicago urchins, mouths clownishly agape, or crying from some infantile slight. Some shots are Goya-like, as in a remarkable tableau of two men in a fistfight surrounded by a crowed of abashed onlookers.

In New York, Heath also captures whiffs of civic tragedy, as in his shots of crowds and police gathered at a Central Park drowning scene, their faces registering everything from inscrutable puzzlement to troubled empathy. And it is in New York, not surprisingly, that Heath clicks with the emerging '60s scene, a blend of café bohemianism and art-gallery chic. His shots of Manhattan's hip denizens are close-up classics of cooled-out alienation. By the mid-'60s, he's off by Greyhound bus, on a cross-country odyssey that would lead him to the student meccas of Berkeley and Santa Barbara, CA, where the era of Vietnam War protest and disaffection is flowering, darkly, in every youthful face.

Heath's assembled his work for potent art projects, such "Beyond the Gates of Eden," in which he married voice and music to a diptych slide show of his photos--pairing subtly differentiated versions of the same shot, as well as contrasting images of singles and couples lost in their inner worlds. And 82 prints comprise Heath's 1965 masterpiece of a monograph, "A Dialogue With Solitude," the original maquette of which was spread across four walls in the museum show.

This catalogue provides a through survey of all this and more, with insightful commentary by Keith Davis and by Michael Torosian, who explores Heath's printmaking. The bonus of the catalogue is its sampling of Heath's color work from 2001 to 2007, in which his essential style is matched to muted earth tones; they may not add much to his classic vocabulary, but they are unquestionably a master's work, reflections of an undeceived, undefeated eye.

ICELAND: A PERSONAL VIEW. Volume I, by Paula Chamlee; Volume II, by Michael A. Smith.
OCEAN VARIATIONS, by Michael A. Smith.
Both published by Lodima Press, Revere, Pennsylvania. Hardbound; Information: http://www.lodima.org.

This trio of books represent the austere perspectives of two distinguished photographers, Paula Chamlee and Michael A. Smith, who spent months exploring the primal beauty of Iceland's terrain--its glaciated shores and misted peaks, its geologic wonder walls of rock and, in several color and black-and-white portraits, a small sample of its humble domestic architecture.

The results are an aesthetic triumph of naturalist photography and the timeless tonal power of black-and-white, as Chamlee's 8x10 images and Smith's panoramic 8x20 shots complement each other beautifully. Chamlee isolates her subjects, be they the crystalized formations of Icelandic stone, or blends of cloud-swathed sky and frigid sea, creating abstractions that suggest primordial shapes and textures, especially in the riddled geologic grandeur of Jokulsarlon. A sense of the earth's formational majesty and mystery is profoundly in play here.

As for Smith's images--which extend to a smaller companion volume, "Ocean Variations," in which seashore, sand, and ocean are captured in tidal interplays--his wide-format images convey a stark and richly contrasted vision of place and weather, as storms gather, water pools, and ice lays like chipped diamonds on a shelf of wave-battered land.

The striations, the vistas, the horizon lines are set before us with great clarity and formal discernment. Faced with an infinity of choices, Smith and Chamlee make consistently good ones, delivering subtle variations and startling discoveries, balancing the sights of nature in familiar context against the almost alien textures and disorienting close-ups of sea walls and geologic forms.

Indeed, in his Foreword, environmentalist Omar Ragnarrson notes: "There is a special energy in Iceland…The distant views and close-up details are…also about much more--the rhythms of life and nature everywhere." And Jens Erdman Rasmussen, former photography curator at Copenhagen's National Museum of Photography, writes: "In an uncompromising way, Paula Chamlee and Michael J. Smith tell us about how we perceive the world rather than show us the world itself."

Tellingly, Rasmussen's essay is entitled "This is Not a Landscape"--an echo of Rene Magritte's iconic surrealist painting of a pipe, "This is Not a Pipe"--suggesting that the photographers are engaged not so much in representing or memorializing the real as in studying earthly form and light from an almost interior aesthetic space, interpreting Iceland more so than recreating it for us. It may matter less that they transport us to the specific sites of the great land mass than that they locate Iceland as a place of mind every bit as a much as a place of earth, air and water. The implications are powerful and unforced, yet unavoidable: our rugged and seemingly eternal natural world is threatened on all sides, and we must look deep within ourselves lest it--and we--be lost.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)