candid portraits of teen beatniks in 50s washington square

A new book of work by the late photographer Dave Heath captures cat-eyed rebels, poets, and folksingers in and around the legendary New York park.

by Alice Newell-Hanson
29 November 2016, 5:00pm

Washington Square Park is one of New York's most mythical meeting places. It's been home to riots, readings, and teenage runaways (as well as NYU students) for nearly two centuries. When Jean-Michel Basquiat left home at 15, he slept on the park's benches. Larry Clark's infamous portrait of 1990s New York youth Kids shows skaters Casper and Telly brawling and lighting up at the square's landmark fountain.

But earlier than all this, in the late 1950s, when photographer Dave Heath moved to New York, the area was known as "junkie row." In the press release for a new book of Heath's images of the park, a quote by Simone de Beauvoir describes mid-century Washington Square as "a cosmopolitan chorus of tourists, 'intellectuals', students and a dubious collection of beatniks, hippies and bohemians who gather while in the dimly lit nightclubs and coffee houses, blues and folk singers perform."

Heath's images capture all of this in graphic black and white. A girl in a Jean Seberg sweater clutching a kitten, caught in a moment of open-mouthed distraction. Serious teenagers in heavy-framed glasses, arms wrapped around each other. A young musician with a pork pie hat and an anxious-looking girlfriend. Heath also made his way into the area's famous coffee houses, like the 7 Arts Coffee Gallery, where he shot Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Jack Kerouac giving readings. Images of all three appear in the book, and Howl serves as an introduction to the images.

"Although Dave's work in Washington Square Park can be considered street photography, he was more interested in personal reflections on the human existence as seen through his subjects," says Heath's Toronto gallerist, Stephen Bulger. "His photographs cleverly used people he found in the public domain to represent various aspects of the self."

When Heath moved to New York, on January 1, 1955, he was still young himself. After serving in Korea, where he used his camera to document his fellow machine-gunners, he struggled through two semesters at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art and a brief spell in Chicago, before heading to Manhattan. His images from these years, and from throughout his career, seem to communicate a sense of loneliness but also a longing to connect with his fellow artists and drifters. In the introduction to Heath's 1965 book A Dialog with Solitude, Robert Frank described the mood of his images as being like "late Friday afternoon in the Universe." And the same could be said of Washington Square.

Heath passed away on his 85th birthday this past June, not long before the book was finished. "His images convey a beauty and emotion that is difficult to sum up in words," its publisher, Rachel Stanley, tells i-D, "Hopefully we did his work justice and created something that can live on."

"Washington Square" by Dave Heath is out now, through Stanley/Barker, in collaboration with Howard Greenberg Gallery and Stephen Bulger Gallery.


Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Dave Heath, courtesy Stanley/Barker

dave heath
washington square