I was originally going to the Nelson Atkins Museum to see the “40 Part Motet.” The “Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of David Heath” exhibit wasn’t even on my radar as I bought my ticket and headed to the Featured Exhibits section of the museum.
However, when I caught a glimpse of black and white, 1950’s era photos I started to rethink my plan.
When I walked into the exhibit, the dimly lit room gave off a mellow feel with its dark brown walls and simple layout. There was no noise, just silence. The room had a few dividing walls that were covered with framed, black and white photographs, all neatly arranged in lines.
What I discovered while gazing at the photographs was eye-opening. While even I would think these pictures would flood me with grief for the lonely men and women, instead I felt optimistic that not all solitude is bad solitude.
The photos were divided into groups. There were photos from the Korean war, photos of couples, photos of African Americans and miscellaneous photos from New York or Chicago along the way.
The setup may have been simple, but the photos were not. As I looked at the first line of photographs I got pulled into each individual’s story.
I went to Korea, where somber soldiers prepared their weapons for battle. Then I walked on the streets of New York where an abandoned child wept. I experienced the love between a couple holding each other.
After viewing the first few lines I really wanted to learn more about the stories the photos told and who was telling them. I read all of the posters in the exhibit and also the handout card explaining specific photos.
The photos were taken by a man named David Heath between 1949 and 1963. Abandoned at the age of four, Heath grew up in various orphanages and foster homes. He was a “chronic loner” who never had a family.
Heath began taking photos as a teenager, and continued for the rest of his life. He captured people in their “natural state,” showing their moments of loneliness, sadness, love and happiness. He never staged or set up a photo – just captured pure human nature.
Almost all of his photos have some symbolic meaning relating to solitude. Some show homeless and abandoned people living on the streets, ignored by those walking by. Others simply show people sitting alone on the subway.
One of my favorites showed a homeless man curled up on the street while a well-groomed businessman hustles past him. The way Heath took the photo and developed it made the homeless man look like he was cloaked in bright white, as if he was an angel. Everything else, including the man in the suit, was shrouded in black.
Heath’s view on lovers was also intriguing. Most of the photos he took were of couples hugging or kissing, but simultaneously looking off in the distance, unemotional.
The point of the photos are to show that even when people are physically together, they still may be lost in their own thoughts, alone. These photos are contrary to the stereotypical theme of love: when two people love each other, they become one.
I can’t come close to explaining every photo in the exhibit; each one has its own individual message and each photo has it’s own story behind it. However, Heath does connect all of his photographs to a common theme of solitude.
Heath’s goal was to show his own life of solitude through his photos. He wanted to find others like him, other loners. The photos in the exhibit truly take you into a world that is usually feared and ignored – the world of solitude.
This exhibit changed how I view people and relationships. I now understand that everyone deals with solitude, but what matters is that we help each other get through our solitude.