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Dave Heath, Canadian (b. United States, 1931-2016). Self-portrait, Toronto, Ontario, 29 January 2002. Inkjet print, 11 7/8 ≈~ 16 1/8 inches (30.2 ≈~ 41 cm). The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.? Gift of Dave Heath, 2014.42.

Describing someone as “complicated” is usually the polite way of saying that he or she is “difficult.” Van Gogh, Lucian Freud, Joan Crawford – artists all, all complicated, all difficult. So, it seems, was the photographer and educator David Martin Heath, better known as Dave Heath, who died on June 27, his 85th birthday, after a fall down the stairs of his Toronto home.

Mr. Heath, who arrived in Canada from the United States in 1970, may not be as well-known to Canadians as photographers Yousuf Karsh or Edward Burtynsky. His career was a sort of bob-and-weave, with imminent but never-quite-arriving fame and various shades of obscurity. This was the result, largely, of Mr. Heath’s “chronic loner status,” as one observer put it, plus a stubborn disavowal of what a former Heath student at Toronto’s Ryerson University, his teaching post for a quarter-century, calls “the mainstream art photography world.”

But among connoisseurs and historians of the medium, photographers and critics, Mr. Heath stands among the giants. One famous curator, John Szarkowski, “discoverer” of Diane Arbus and William Eggleston, lauded Mr. Heath’s photos for their “great emotional force,” for their combination of “the small-camera approach with a rare formal intensity and precision.”

Mr. Heath saw his work, heavily oriented to superbly printed images of human faces and bodies in urban spaces, as being neither documentary nor photojournalism but rather “a manner of poetry or even of drawing (in the Rembrandtian sense).” He called it “lightness underlined with disquietude.”

Today, a good first-edition copy of his signature work, the suite-like A Dialogue with Solitude, can sell for as much as $2,000 (U.S.). Years in preparation, it was published in 1965 in a run of only 1,400 copies. Then there is Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath, a 330-page retrospective monograph published last year to accompany a touring Heath exhibition, which opened in Philadelphia and went on to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, in Kansas City.

For Dave Heath, photography was a salvation. He was born, an only child, in Philadelphia on June 27, 1931. His father deserted the family when Dave was one year old.

At 4, his mother took him to the doorstep of her parents’ home and left him there. She was never seen or heard from again. His grandparents chose not to take him in, and the next seven or eight years were a blur of foster homes, culminating in his admittance, at 12, to the Association for Jewish Children, a Philadelphia orphanage.

This would be his home for the next four years, and the place where he first encountered photography. Professional photographers, looking for happy/sad stories, would visit the orphanage to take pictures of the kids, including Dave. He liked what they did, and the things they carried.

Philadelphia (girls sharing a secret), 1954 © Dave Heath, courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery and Howard Greenberg Gallery

In short order, he was lifting two dollars from the wallet of the orphanage director to clandestinely buy a cheap Falcon Miniature camera.

In May, 1947, he became enchanted with an eight-page photo yarn in Life magazine titled “Bad Boy’s Story: An Unhappy Child Learns to Live at Peace with the World.” It told the story of a 13-year-old foster child whose destructive, antisocial ways were ameliorated by a child-centred rehabilitation program in Seattle.

Here, notes Nelson-Atkins senior curator of photography Keith Davis, writing in Multitude, Solitude, was young Dave’s decisive moment: In effect, the Life spread told his “own story … in a medium that he was beginning to sense could also be his. The two – life and medium – became inextricably linked.”

He quickly became obsessed with photography, reading photo magazines and joining the high-school camera club. In 1947, he switched to a vocational school with a photography program, only to find it was restricted to ex-GIs who had served in the Second World War. He became a commercial art major instead, but dropped out in late 1948, eventually moving in with his father, who had since remarried. The relationship never gelled, however, and the teenager went to live on his own, supporting himself as a busboy and darkroom technician.

By the age of 19, he was making regular visits to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with occasional forays to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan (MoMA). The art he appreciated most in those venues “was always predicated on a sense of personal and emotional connection,” according to Mr. Davis. Art that Mr. Heath himself would later characterize as “inward and soulful and sad.”

By this time, he was taking lots of pictures, mostly of “human interest” subjects, and developing a keen interest in photographic sequencing and series – an interest he would sustain for the rest of his artistic life.

In the fall of 1952, he made the first of what would eventually be four handmade photo books; 3, as the first was called, ran to 32 pages, including covers, and contained 52 original prints divided into three sequences – pictures of train passengers, pictures of hands, pictures of kids visiting a department-store Santa.

Less than a year later, with the Korean War raging, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Before heading overseas, he paid a quick visit to New York where he somehow got Edward Steichen, influential “dean” of photography at MoMA, to look at his pictures.

Washington Square, New York City (two women facing away), 1960 © Dave Heath, courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery and Howard Greenberg Gallery

Mr. Heath would recall that Mr. Steichen found the photos “banal” – although he agreed to buy one for MoMA’s collection. Six years later, he was buying six Heaths.

Mr. Heath returned to Philadelphia unscathed and with a bevy of photographs of his fellow soldiers, many of which found their way into his next two hand-made books, No Dancing in the Streets (1954) and In Search of Self: A Portfolio (1956). He entered the Philadelphia Museum School of Art but lasted only two semesters before moving to Chicago. After working a little more than two years in a commercial studio there, he headed to New York.

Then as now, New York was the hub of American photography in all its idioms, and he seemed to revel in what it offered. He scored a series of jobs with some of the city’s most successful commercial photographers and joined the Greenwich Village Camera Club, where he got to know the likes of Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. In 1958, Mr. Heath had his first solo show, at the Seven Arts Coffee Gallery, a beatnik hangout visited regularly by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The New York Times reviewed it, the critic enthusing that Mr. Heath was “destined for the top.”

He also served as associate editor of Contemporary Photography magazine and, in 1963, John Szarkowski, MoMA’s new director of photography, included 12 Heaths in a group show at the museum. By then, Mr. Heath was becoming known as a master of the darkroom, skilled at bleaching, burning, dodging and other techniques that resulted in lustrous, high-contrast prints. Robert Frank, whose 1958 book The Americans has been deemed the most important photographic work of the second half of the 20th century, paid Mr. Heath to print a dozen images for a MoMA exhibition in 1961.

It is Michael Torosian’s view that “Dave authentically was one of the few prodigies in the history of photography. When he came to photography in his teens, even in his very earliest pictures, you can see an adeptness. And then relatively rapidly that facility turns into something very sophisticated. And all this without much tutoring or education. He was just incredibly driven, incredibly hungry.”

Mr. Torosian knows his Heath. He was the photographer’s student at Ryerson University in the early 1970s and served as Mr. Heath’s manager for many years starting in the mid-1980s, helping to renew interest in the photographer, not least by producing for his own Toronto-based fine-art press, Lumiere, two superb limited-edition books about Mr. Heath, one in 1988, the other in 2004.

Perhaps most significant, in 2000, Mr. Torosian oversaw the return to print of Mr. Heath’s masterwork, A Dialogue with Solitude. Called “the most important book by a photographer in the 1960s” by James Borcoman, one-time photo curator at the National Gallery of Canada and long-time Heath champion, the reprint was issued in three separate limited editions, all of which sold out.

To Mr. Torosian’s eye, Mr. Heath “seems to have been born with this incredible graphic sense. He knew how to extract from the chaos of the visual world a highly resolved, highly organized image that is no longer the world but something unto itself. He understood that abstraction very early, understood, too, that while the picture may be taken on the street, the work of art is made in the darkroom.”

Howard Crawford Jr., Korea, 1953/54 © Dave Heath, courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery and Howard Greenberg Gallery

Mr. Heath went on to accept teaching jobs at the Dayton Art Institute and Moore College of Art, a Philadelphia women’s college. Eventually his concerns over the war in Vietnam and U.S. politics prompted him to move to Toronto. Ever restless, his artistic inclinations changed as well. He began rummaging around antique shops in search of yellowing snapshots and historical and vernacular pictures. He developed an intense interest in Polaroids (ultimately taking more than 50,000 exposures) and later got a digital camera to shoot faces, in colour, on the street. In 1974 he began to keep a journal, which at the time of his death totalled at least 200 volumes, stuffed with his musings and troves of ephemera.

Yet through all this activity, he never found much solace from the demons of his childhood abandonment. “Dave was an extraordinarily depressed human being,” Mr. Torosian noted. Indeed, “it was very important for Dave to be perceived as the quintessential suffering artist. I cannot stress this enough – that he was the victim of his life and that this fuelled his art.”

As a teacher at Ryerson, Mr. Heath earned the admiration of fellow instructor/photographer Phil Bergerson and student/photographer Ruth Kaplan, among many others, for being “incredibly articulate about sequencing” and “really great at connecting you to the inner themes of your work and quickly analyzing the visual symbols of the photograph.”

But he could be brusque, volatile, even abusive in the classroom. He frequently ran afoul of students, administrators and colleagues, particularly in his last eight or nine years at the school, where, as long-term Ryerson professor and curator Don Snyder remembers, “he unleashed more or lesser amounts of venom on almost everyone, myself included.”

Mr. Bergerson, who team-taught with Mr. Heath for three years in the mid-1980s, recalled: “I would tend to be the buffer zone in a lot of that tension with students. … It would wear you out.” By the time Mr. Heath reached mandatory retirement in 1996 he was, for all the employment stability Ryerson had provided, “very angry at the school and at the world,” Mr. Snyder recalled. “Here was this genius person who has a problem that goes right back to his childhood, and he could not get from under it,” Mr. Bergerson said.

But Michael Schreier, an Austrian-born artist, academic and curator who organized a well-regarded retrospective on Mr. Heath in 2013 at the Ottawa Art Gallery, said that as a Ryerson student in the early 1970s, he “thoroughly enjoyed the directness in his teaching.” And Mr. Schreier held on to his relationship with Mr. Heath to the end, even becoming the owner of his contemporary collection.

“It was what a proper human relationship should be about – it is generosity, it is tenderness, it is confusion, it is anger, it is frustration, it is joy, it is the sublime insight we give each other.”

Mr. Heath had few friends and his one marriage, when he was about 39, lasted less than 18 months. According to Mr. Torosian, “everybody in his life who held out a hand to help him, he ultimately bit that hand at one point or another.”

Still, there were moments when he would show another side. Mr. Torosian, in fact, believes he saw him “at the happiest moment of his life.” This was around 2005. Mr. Torosian wrote a profile of Mr. Heath for a magazine and offered it to him to read before it was submitted. The article (subsequently unpublished) concentrated on his early days in Philadelphia.

“Dave sat down and reads it very carefully, in total silence, and after 25 minutes, all of a sudden, he breaks out into this gleeful laughter,” Mr. Torosian recalled. “I say, ‘Dave, what are you so happy about?’ And he says, ‘This line, this line!’ and he points to the page [which reads]: ‘When I first met Dave Heath in the ’70s he struck me as the only human being I’d ever met whose vocal cords were tuned in the key of melancholy.’ He absolutely loved this characterization. This is how he wanted to be seen, this persona. He was just beaming.”

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