“Vintage” Photos of 1950s Washington Square Youth Showcased in New Book

New York Magazine recently featured “Vintage Photos of the Teens Who Ran Washington Square Park in the 1950s” from a new book by photographer Dave Heath who died earlier this year. Heath had a special connection to the park and the images capture a seriousness in the faces that you might not expect.

Gallerist Howard Greenberg told the magazine, “Let me put it this way: those were the late days of beatniks and the early days of hootenanny. It was a time when the seeds of change were being sown, and things were fermenting in the coffee shops and the folk-music clubs downtown.

He’s speaking of New York in the late 1950s, when photographer Dave Heath wandered down to Washington Square Park — the city’s incubator of youthful defiance — and captured raw, moody images of what would become a historic scene.

The photographs, which turned out to be some of Heath’s most enduring and respected work, are collected in the book Washington Square, published this month by Stanley/Barker in collaboration with Howard Greenberg Gallery and Stephen Bulger Gallery. The images are all black and white, and though strictly speaking they fall into the category of “street photography,” they’re close-cropped and intimate: Looking at them, you can feel the quiet energy of each encounter. Heath’s subjects, the nonconformists of the time, are mostly solemn — in one photograph, two young women in turtlenecks hunch back to back, seemingly weighed down by worry. Another girl, sitting next to the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, clutches a paper cup of coffee and a cigarette. (Ginsberg’s famous poem “Howl” forms the introduction to Heath’s book.)

Heath identified with the sense of detachment that this generation felt, says Greenberg. “Dave’s parents gave him up at a very young age and he grew up as a foster child in a home, which was not a very happy upbringing for him, and I think it left him somewhat scarred,” he explains. “His work shows a tremendous desire to both connect with and to understand the angst of alienation, and at the same time, the need that people have to come together. It’s deeply emotionally felt, and Dave was a deeply emotional human being.”

Dave Heath died this year at 85 – on his birthday – prior to the release. In the featured photos at New York Magazine, the photos are all “close-cropped,” so you don’t really see the park. Greenberg explained that Heath “shot with a telephoto lens, which allowed him to stand 10 or 15 feet away from his subjects and capture images that feel very close.” Not sure if more of the park is seen in the rest of the book’s photos. But it is, after all, titled Washington Square, and the images certainly do capture an evocative feeling of a time “when seeds of change were being sown.”

This made me wonder: would anyone call Washington Square Park “an incubator of youthful defiance” today?

Photos: Dave Heath

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