Dave Heath’s A Dialogue With Solitude, first published in 1965 and just reissued in a somewhat larger format by Lumiere Press ($50), is a cult book and a period piece. Designed by Heath as a series of rhythmically interlinked passages, it’s the sort of earnest document that accepts, in the words of Heath’s brief preface, “life’s tragic aspects” but rejects self-pity in favor of “love and concern for the human condition.” That phrase alone dates the book; who but old school sentimentalists admits to dwelling on the human condition these days?
Maybe that’s why the Heath revival, celebrated in this show of vintage work at Howard Greenberg, is so welcome. His pictures are a reminder of why many of us were drawn to photography in the first place: for its power to involve and connect us, to illuminate the world and our place in it. Heath acknowledges that tradition with a dedication to W. Eugene Smith and nods to Aaron Siskind, Wright Morris, and Robert Frank, all of whose work is reflected in his own. A letter from Frank printed in the new edition thanks Heath “for showing us your fearless love of life,” but his passionate embrace of darkness and despair is what sets his work apart from much of the period’s knee-jerk humanism.
A Dialogue With Solitude—whose photos Greenberg supplements with contemporaneous others—feels like a beat Family of Man, touching on childhood, old age, love, war (Heath saw combat in Korea), and the black experience with the fierce seriousness and grace of a poet. The book is peppered with quotations from Rilke, Yeats, Hesse, and others, and it’s pervaded by a youthful and anxious spirit. Though Heath chose joy over despair, and engagement over alienation, he recorded it all with a heartbreaking tenderness that feels just as genuine nearly 40 years on.