About the Face: The Photographs of Dave Heath — Pierre Dessureault

[Fall 2019]

By Pierre Dessureault

In a body of work accumulated over more than sixty years, Dave Heath (1931–2016), a Canadian photographer born in the United States, challenged the qualities of the photographic medium and its techniques. He constantly probed, through images, Montaigne’s dictum that “every man carries the entire form of the human condition.”1

The motif that dominates in A Dialogue with Solitude, published in 1965, is the face, and images from the book take up the lion’s share in the recent exhibition Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath.2 In many of the eighty-two photographs in A Dialogue with Solitude, assembled in ten chapters that summarize his production from 1952 to 1963, Heath isolates and scrutinizes faces on which is inscribed the encounter of two singularities: that of the photographer and that of his subjects, who recognize themselves in the vulnerability of a silent confrontation. In this sense, the ideas of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas could be the keystone of Heath’s search for humanity: “The face is not the mere assemblage of a nose, a forehead, eyes, etc.; it is all that, of course, but takes on the meaning of a face through the new dimension it opens up in the perception of a being. Through the face, the being is not only enclosed in its form and offered to the hand, it is also open, establishing itself in depth and, in this opening, presenting itself somehow in a personal way. The face is an irreducible mode in which being can present itself in its identity.”3
Translated by Käthe Roth

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1 Michel de Montaigne, Essays of Michel de Montaigne, book 3, chapter 2, trans. Charles Cotton, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3600/3600-h/3600-h.
2 Exhibition organized for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City by the museum’s senior curator of photography, Keith F. Davis, and presented at the National Gallery of Canada 14 March–2 September 2019.
3 Emmanuel Levinas, Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, trans. Seán Hand (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 8.