I’m at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, sitting in a lofty white room designed to make people feel small and the possessions of the super-rich seem large. I’ve just seen two exhibitions of fine art photography, by Richard Learoyd and Dave Heath, and I’m left contemplating a gloomy vision of photography’s ability to destroy itself.
Gloom was the working material of Dave Heath [1931-2016] who (assuming you can believe the gallery materials) grew up a confused and alienated teenager in a Philadelphia orphanage. He took to photography in 1947, survived an Army stint in the Korean War, and wound up in New York City, where – like a kajillion other alienated 20somethings – he made surly black-and-white street photographs and started showing them in coffee shops.
But unlike most, his lucky number came up on the art machine’s Wheel of Fame. In 1963 he scored the hat trick, bagging shows at the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the George Eastman House, plus a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship as a victory lap. Publication of an art book, “A Dialogue with Solitude,” followed in 1965. At the age of 34, Heath had achieved art-world nirvana, a non-expiring ticket on the gallery/private collection/teaching gravy train.
You’d think that would make a guy happy, but no. Pretty much from first to last, Heath’s oeuvre is a solid mass of selenium-toned melancholia. Grim-faced New Yorkers, Canadians, Korean War soldiers and assorted others gaze out of his small, somber prints, peering through a harsh light that never seems to illuminate the darkness of their existence or, by extension, anyone else’s. A brief flirtation with color photography in the early 2000s didn’t change the fundamentals. Dave Heath’s world is a sad, dark Philadelphia orphanage in which we’ve all never gotten beyond being confused and alienated teenagers.
Two things, though, need to be said. First, I never met Heath, know nothing about him, never even heard of him until this show. For all I know, he could have been the sweetest, most charming, most humble and most gratitude-filled person imaginable. All I know about him is what I read in the exhibit notes. So all the ire in the paragraphs above stems not from Heath the person, but from the melancholy and alienated persona created by the art-world spin machine. I’m tempted to call it the Francesca Woodman Effect: the work isn’t enough, there has to be a backstory. In an age awash in art, that’s what makes the fame wheel spin.
Second, on an individual level, a lot of these images are striking and poignant. I especially liked the handful of works Heath had made during his Korean Army stint: they have the jarring property of transporting the posturing of ‘50s street photography into a world of fatigues and machine guns, one in which the possibility of imminent death is very real rather than merely an artistic construct.
The problem is that it’s hard to see them on an individual level – both in terms of the exhibit design, which presents them in massed ranks in sepulchrally dim rooms, and in terms of their place in the vast array of street photographs emitted by millions of practitioners since the 1930s. It’s hard to believe every grim, harshly-lit New Yorker hasn’t been photographed at least once by now, by somebody whose work looks a lot like Heath’s but whose number didn’t come up on the fame wheel. Street photography, for me at least, has become a snake that swallowed itself, and a reverent-but-routine exhibit like this one can’t unswallow it again.
Much less needs to be said about the work of Richard Learoyd, a British fellow born in 1966 and thus thrust, like Athena from Zeus’s brow, into the big-time-gallery-superstar art world of the 1980s. It was a very different world from Heath’s coffee-shop gallery milieu of the 1960s: one in which every would-be artist needs a unique selling proposition, a personal brand, or – to put it bluntly – a schtik.
Learoyd’s schtik is to use what art publicists have been calling a “camera obscura,” with a lens built into one wall of a darkened room and a large sheet of sensitized paper on the opposite wall. The fact that blueprint shops have routinely used cameras of this design for decades seems to have escaped the publicists, who act as if Learoyd invented it.
There’s also nothing groundbreaking about the look of his prints: the cold, blue-tinged, dead-skin-tone pallor of the dye-bleach process, which we old-timers still call Cibachrome.
The wall notes claim that this combination of technique and materials produces miraculous detail, but it doesn’t. The prints aren’t any more detailed than ones made with a conventional camera – they’re just larger.
Oh, well, it’s tough to make a living in today’s art world, and God forbid Learoyd should have to get a real job or something, so if this is what it takes to get him onto the gallery gravy train, then more power to him. It’s not brilliant work, but it’s a good schtik.
But wait… Maybe in today’s world, the schtik IS the art. If so, Dave Heath’s vanished art world looks almost cheerful after all.