Dave Heath: sexuality, death and other demons

By Lisandra Cortina de la Noval

 “The themes that absorb him above all others are eros and God; or the mysteries of women and death.”

Cynthia Ozick

Two headshot photographs of the artist Dave Heath wearing glasses.

Diptych of Dave Heath, 2005, by Michael Schreier (e008299923)

Who is Dave Heath?

The late David Martin Heath was born on June 27, 1931, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Abandoned by both parents by the age of four and rejected by the rest of his family, Heath grew up in a series of Jewish foster homes until he was placed in an orphanage at age 12. Three years later, he began to pursue photography as an escape from loneliness, setting the stage for a long and outstanding career that would leave a mark on modern photography. In 1970, he came to Canada and settled in Toronto.

Mostly self-taught, Heath was a photographer, printmaker, writer, critic, editor and teacher. Best known for his book A Dialogue with Solitude (1965), he experimented with different expressive forms: traditional darkroom work, audiovisual slide presentations, Polaroid technology, digital colour photography and artistic journals. Heath’s journals, spanning 1974 to 2016, are now part of Library and Archives Canada’s collection.

Following in the traditions of Walker Evans and Robert Frank, Heath considered photographic sequence as an art form and put the relations between words and images at the centre of his work. He understood photography as a “wordless poetry” (Dave Heath journals). His art, though deeply personal, is an exploration of the human condition.

A gentle yet haunted soul

Reclusive by nature, Heath lived his life as a continuous struggle. The abandonment in his early years, by his mother in particular, was a curse he was unable to exorcise throughout his adult life. Adopting the name “Dave” was his way of gaining the necessary dimension, presence and character denied to him as a child. This became his name as an artist.

Despite his abandonment issues and his inability to connect with others or to maintain a long-term relationship, his work reveals his love for women. In his journals, he wonders: “Is the repetitive preoccupation with women in my work an avenue to escape the original trauma by investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery so that she becomes reassuring rather than dangerous, thus transforming her into something satisfying in itself, a work of art?” This might explain his fascination with the female body, breasts in particular, not only as sexual objects but also as “loving warmth and heart of a woman—forgiving, comforting, consoling and life-affirming” (self-interview by painter Paul Matthews, September 26, 2006, Dave Heath journals). Sexuality was for him a source of artistic ideas. He created and gathered an amazing collection of pictorial erotica over the years. His last book, Eros and the Wounded Self, brings together a selection of his polaroids of women.

Always the loner, Heath had very few friends, but he loved them dearly. His journals show a gentle soul, a man who unhesitatingly supported his friends and fellow artists, economically and emotionally. “You must persist without guarantee of recognition, fame, fortune or posterity. It is the burden of being a true artist rather than a spurious imitation” (Dave Heath journals).

“Waiting for the end, boys, waiting for the end”

(from “Just A Smack At Auden,” poem by William Empson, Dave Heath journals)

“We live, we die. Only death and oblivion our true destiny.”

Dave Heath

Death is treated extensively in Heath’s work, but not in the traditional “fear of death” way. He confessed that he had thought of death since he was seven years old, or probably even four, when his mother deserted him. His work, based on profound loss, explores the inevitability of death. Everyone is born to die, but what really mattered to him was what we do before then, what we are able to accomplish while living: legacy versus oblivion.

His final years were a race against death, as he worked hard to finish a last body of work, his swan song. Despite some health issues, he managed to complete and publish his last two books: Dave Heath’s Art Show (2007), featuring some of his digital work, and Eros and the Wounded Self (2010).

Heath died on June 27, 2016, his 85th birthday, at his home in Toronto. He lived his life wanting to redeem the stain of rejection through creative work. “It has always been my wish, my thought, my desire, my ambition that my work would be the marker of my life on earth, the truer memorial of my advent” (Dave Heath journals).

If you are in the National Capital Region this summer and want to see his work, visit the Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, which continues until September 2, 2019.


Lisandra Cortina de la Noval is a photo archivist in the Social Life and Culture Private Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.