Book Review: Multitude, Solitude

  By John Veldhoen

Dave Heath

Looking at Dave Heath’s photographs in the biggest, and best monograph on his work, a conjunction appears with the title, combining to make what I’d call an ideological value, an “oneist interpretation” of the world and individual perception, perhaps like what Hinduism demarcates as Advaita. Heath’s pictures, collected under this heading, could make it seem like the world and images of the world are so enmeshed that one is reminded of the German philosophers of the 19th Century, who followed a Vedic line of difference between will and representation. All the way back to Plato, some have upheld a distinction between reality and appearance. Realists say perception is effect, idealists say affect, and the dialectic goes on and on and on. The title of Heath’s monograph from Yale “Multitude, Solitude” hearkens back to the problem of the one and many.  The use of the word multitude, popular in Marxist philosophy, indicates an essentially Spinozist attitude to everything under the sun. And yet the question remains for me whether Heath intended this split. If anything, his photographs are called “deeply empathetic” and obey a law of cardinality, and have a relationship between one and many, or many and many.

Heath published a photo book in his own lifetime (he passed away last week, on his own birthday, incidentally) entitled  “A Dialogue With Solitude” which is reprinted in the current volume. Regarded a high achievement in the history of the photobook due to the range and technical accomplishment of his printing, Heath’s “solitude” is expressly dialogical, and not multitudinous (he used a quote from the poet Rilke in his book “love consists in this, that two solitudes protect, and touch, and greet each other”). If there is a sadness involved, it is sadness in relation to the idea of self-sameness on the behalf of the photographer and his subject, a relationship bordering on the emotion of pathos, but for that to be true, for me to sense it, I’d have to ignore the feeling produced by this publication’s title, and accompanying critical material, and look at the pictures themselves, and use the faculty of seeing with my heart. By seeing the other in the photograph, as the other, and not just as my self, I can feel empathy, and connection to virtues like mercy.  As an aside, it is interesting to me that Heath left the U.S., where he was born, and the country whose military he served in, for Canada in 1970. He left “out of many one” behind for a country that, ideally, makes no claims on the citizen to be a republic of the self.

I know I have written this in a philosophical way, but my intention is not to stand as a critical interloper over Heath or this book. Since Heath’s passing there have been clearer, simpler, and better introductions to his work, and this book. I think it is a valuable edition, and I think anyone looking at photographs is served well by this book insofar as it presents the only complete way into this photographers vast and varied body of work. When we look at monumental monographs like this, too, it seems we’re presented by a cosmology, a photographers way of looking can seem so encompassing as to make a total vision. My intent writing this is to forestall critical interpretation, or provide another way of looking. 

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In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.