I'm very sorry to report that Dave Heath has died.
And that Bill Cunningham has died.
Each deserves attention and respect individually, but I was personally struck by the contrast between the two of them. It could hardly be greater, given that each photographed real people on the street. For Bill Cunningham, a groundbreaking and influential fashion photographer who pioneered the practice of catching fashion "on the hoof" so to speak, wandering Manhattan on his bicycle photographing real people for the New York Times, the Times has published a widely read obituary, written by Jacob Bernstein. It's a rich read and a mini-profile of a very successful but dedicated and uncompromising life as a photographer. Although Bill Cunningham himself regarded the publicity he received and the fame he achieved as a hassle that interfered with his work, he received many honors—he was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government, saw a lifelike mannequin of himself installed as an homage in the window at Bergdorf Goodman, and, when a documentary was made about him in 2010, it premiered at the Museum of Modern Art. He was so beloved in New York that he was designated a "living landmark" by the New York Landmarks Conservancy. His work and the way he went about it influenced many other photographers and their projects, from Scott Shuman's "The Sartorialist" to Brandon Stanton's sprawling Humans of New York. And, for such a humble man, he was highly revered in the high-powered world of fashion: as Anna Wintour, the legendary British editor of American Vogue, famously said, "we all get dressed for Bill."
Dave Heath's fortunes, on the other hand, are succinctly summed up in this headline from Philadelphia Magazine, especially considering that Dave Heath died on the day of his 85th birthday: "84-Year-Old Philly-Born Photographer, Dave Heath, Finally Gets His Due." No obituary yet, in the Times or anywhere else. Searching the Times for Bill Cunningham reveals a cascade of articles about him; searching the same site for Dave Heath brings up a hodgepodge of unrelated articles, many having to do with Heath Ledger.
What a dazzling "due" Dave Heath did finally get, though, and all of us are the richer for it, now and going into the future. I missed the show in Philly, no doubt something I'll regret for a long time, but the late-in-life career summation Dave Heath received from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art not only rescues him from obscurity but will preserve this great photographer for posterity. Keith F. Davis's superb book Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath was TOP's Book of the Year last year and is one of my personal favorite photobooks of recent times. I find it both incredibly rich and very moving.
Their deaths only days apart (Bill Cunningham died on Saturday, June 25th, and Dave Heath died on Monday, June 27th) is merely a coincidence, of course. But, especially if you're not acquainted with either gentleman, I highly recommend both Bill Cunningham's Times obituary and Dave Heath's introductory/retrospective book as a study in contrasts and similarities as well as rewarding glimpses into two long lives in photography, well lived.
[UPDATE Saturday 8:30 a.m.: The World's Best Photography Magazine (a.k.a. the NYT) now has an obituary for Dave Heath. Thanks to Craig for the tip. —Ed.]
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Featured Comments from:
Ned Bunnell: "I had the pleasure of bumping into Bill once. Literally. I was photographing the famous Easter Day Parade in NYC, in 2008. I had darted to get a better view of this one lady with a neat hat coming through the crowd. Out of the corner of my eye I saw this blue arm extending in front of me with camera in hand. We bumped. I immediately turned and said something like Bill, so sorry to get in your way. He gave me a genuine smile and said 'nice camera, I didn't think Pentax was still around.' Here's the lady we were both going after. I checked and didn't see his version of the lady in his gallery in the NYT from that day. It was probably blurry from my bumping into him."
Kenneth Tanaka: "I knew about Bill Cunningham. Sorry to hear about Dave Heath. Cunningham was just a truly wonderful character. Anyone who wants to see pure, persistent joy of photographing a subject for decades must see the film Bill Cunningham New York. Warning: It's not about photography. (Cunningham used an old Nikon film camera and one lens for all of his daily work. As the NYT no longer has a darkroom he developed his film at a nearby quick-mart-type shop.) Rain, snow, or shine he was out shooting NY street fashions. Many nights he'd be photographing gala gals. He lived like a monk and devoted all his energies toward documenting the ongoing ever-changing parade of what people were wearing. What a life Bill Cunningham had!"
Sven Erikson: "I highly recommend the documentary Bill Cunningham New York (2010), an interesting and touching look into his life and works."
Rick: " I had the unusual (for me) experience of not just seeing Dave Heath’s art at the Philadelphia MOA last fall, but also hearing him speak about his work. It was unusual in the sense that despite a lifetime of photographic art appreciation, I was unfamiliar with his photographs until that very day, when I was at the Museum to see some classical paintings but wandered down to the Honickman and Berman Galleries almost by accident. I thought up until that moment that I knew most of the best work in contemporary fine art photography. I was wrong. Dave Heath was a revelation. And the pleasure of such a discovery is hard to overstate. I shall buy the book, which I should have done last year!"
hugh crawford: "I'll miss Bill a lot. I first started running into him at parties ( his lesser-known body of work is society party photographs) when he was about twice as old as me, and somehow we eventually got to be more or less the same age.
"Really wonderful afternoon light would attract street photographers to the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, one of the few places that you can routinely get sunlight coming in at a low angle from three directions and a pretty amazing assortment of people who are oblivious to photographers. If Bill was on the corner, impromptu discussions would coalesce around him.
"I was always fascinated by what else was going on in the photos, sort of like how Wegee's photos would be interesting if they only showed the bystanders without the murder victim at the center. I hope his archives are in good hands. Bill always said that no one was interested in old clothes or old news, but I think he was wrong.
"Here is a photo I took of him a couple years ago [I added it to the main post, and thanks much, Hugh. —Ed.]. Note the manual-focus Nikon with the autofocus lens and the C-41 color negatives fresh from the one hour photo lab sticking out of his bag with a copy of the previous Sunday Times. I think we were talking about waist level vs. eye level photography and he pointed out that he needed to get the shoes in the picture.
"Sweetest nicest guy."
Mike Stanton: "For those interested in seeing the documentary 'Bill Cunningham New York' (2010), it is on Amazon Prime, free to Prime members."