“Let me put it this way: those were the late days of beatniks and the early days of hootenanny,” says the gallerist Howard Greenberg. “It was a time when the seeds of change were being sown, and things were fermenting in the coffee shops and the folk-music clubs downtown.” He’s speaking of New York in the late 1950s, when photographer Dave Heath wandered down to Washington Square Park — the city’s incubator of youthful defiance — and captured raw, moody images of what would become a historic scene.
The photographs, which turned out to be some of Heath’s most enduring and respected work, are collected in the book Washington Square, published this month by Stanley/Barker in collaboration with Howard Greenberg Gallery and Stephen Bulger Gallery. The images are all black and white, and though strictly speaking they fall into the category of “street photography,” they’re close-cropped and intimate: Looking at them, you can feel the quiet energy of each encounter. Heath’s subjects, the nonconformists of the time, are mostly solemn — in one photograph, two young women in turtlenecks hunch back to back, seemingly weighed down by worry. Another girl, sitting next to the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, clutches a paper cup of coffee and a cigarette. (Ginsberg’s famous poem “Howl” forms the introduction to Heath’s book.)
Heath identified with the sense of detachment that this generation felt, says Greenberg. “Dave’s parents gave him up at a very young age and he grew up as a foster child in a home, which was not a very happy upbringing for him, and I think it left him somewhat scarred,” he explains. “His work shows a tremendous desire to both connect with and to understand the angst of alienation, and at the same time, the need that people have to come together. It’s deeply emotionally felt, and Dave was a deeply emotional human being.”
Visually, the photographs have a beautiful texture — the inkiest black tones are contrasted with rich, velvety grays. “His printing style was extremely distinctive and powerful,” explains Greenberg; somehow, this seems to amplify the emotional volume of Heath’s work. He shot with a telephoto lens, which allowed him to stand 10 or 15 feet away from his subjects and capture images that feel very close. The work is empathetic, but he was really an outsider. “Dave was always very pleasant, very polite, and very quiet; it was hard to bring words out of him.”
Heath, who died on his 85th birthday, earlier this year, lived in Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York but ultimately settled in Toronto, where he taught at Ryerson University’s School of Image Arts. He is best known for the 1965 book A Dialogue With Solitude, which includes several of his Washington Square pictures.