PHOTOGRAPHS Chris Tang
WORDS Edward Gaynor
In 1961, a parade of folk singers and beatniks marched through Washington Square, into the NYPD’s billy clubs. The performers were protesting a ban against performing without licences, a law the city had passed to counter the ‘undesirable’ sorts their songs attracted to the park.
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Self-taught photographer Dave Heath spent the ‘50s capturing precisely those undesirables. He was born in Philadelphia in 1931, raised as an orphan and drafted as a combat soldier in the Korean War. This personal experience met the revolutionary atmosphere created by the beatnik poets, cafes and personalities and his exploration into the idea of alienation in North America drove Heath to capture the faces of New York’s maligned Beat Generation in a candid way.
Heath died in 2016 while working on his final book, Washington Square, which gives an intimate view of the Beat scene of 1950s New York. The publication features 47 images from his time spent shooting the bars and dives frequented by the likes of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, as well as the streetscape surrounding the park.
Thought of as a place of rebellion, Washington Square was the heart of not just a changing city, but a changing mindset. It was here that Heath, after studying with groundbreaking photojournalist, W. Eugene Smith, adopted a strong humanistic tone to his work and began placing emphasis on photographic narrative – a complementary approach to the scene he was covering.
It’s fitting that the hardcover version of Washington Square includes Allen Ginsberg’s infamous poem, Howl, as an introduction – a nod to the revolutionary subject matter of Heath’s work. Gentrification drove the beatniks out, but in Heath’s work, their spirit still lives.