Ralph Eugene Meatyard
Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925-1972) was an American photographer.
Ralph Eugene Meatyard's death in 1972, a week away
from his 47th birthday, came at the height of the "photo boom," a period
of growth and ferment in photography in the United States which paralleled
the political and social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. It was a time
of ambition, not reflection, a time for writing resumés, not thoughtful
and inclusive histories; in the contest of reputation, dying in 1972 meant
leaving the race early. It was left to friends and colleagues to complete
an Aperture monograph on Meatyard and carry through with the publication
of The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater (1974) which he had laid out and
sequenced before his death. He was from Normal, Illinois.
While he lived Meatyard's work was shown and
collected by major museums, published in important art magazines, and
regarded by his peers as among the most original and disturbing imagery
ever created with a camera. He exhibited with such well-known and diverse
photographers as Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Minor White, Aaron Siskind,
Harry Callahan, Robert Frank, and Eikoh Hosoe. But by the late 1970s, his
photographs seemed consigned to appear mainly in exhibitions of "southern"
art. In the last decade, however, thanks in part to European critics (who
since at least the time of De Tocqueville have forged insights into
American culture), Meatyard's work has reemerged, and the depth of its
genius and its contributions to photography have begun to be understood
and appreciated. In a sense Meatyard suffered a fate common to artists who
are very much of but also very far ahead of their time. Everything about
his life and his art ran counter to the usual and expected patterns. He
was an optician, happily married, a father of three, president of the
Parent-Teacher Association, and coach of a boy's baseball team. He lived
in Lexington, Kentucky, far from the urban centers most associated with
serious art. His images had nothing to do with the gritty "street
photography" of the east coast or the romantic view camera realism of the
west coast. His best known images were populated with dolls and masks,
with family, friends and neighbors pictured in abandoned buildings or in
ordinary suburban backyards.
At the same time he often turned from this
vernacular focus and, like such photographers as Henry Holmes Smith, Harry
Callahan and others, produced highly experimental work. These images
include multiple exposures and photographs where, through deliberate
camera movement, Meatyard took Fox Talbot's "pencil of nature" and drew
calligraphic images with the sun's reflection on a black void of water.
However, where others used these experiments to expand the possibilities
of form in photographs, Meatyard consistently applied breakthroughs in
formal design to the exploration of ideas and emotions. Finally—and of
great importance in the development of his aesthetic—Meatyard created a
mode of "No-Focus" imagery that was distinctly his own. "No-Focus" images
ran entirely counter to any association of camera art with objective
realism and opened a new sense of creative freedom in his art.
In short, Meatyard's work challenged most of the
cultural and aesthetic conventions of his time and did not fit in with the
dominant notions of the kind of art photography could and should be. His
work sprang from the beauty of ideas rather than ideas of the beautiful.
Wide reading in literature (especially poetry) and philosophy (especially
Zen) stimulated his imagination. While others roamed the streets searching
for America and truth, Meatyard haunted the world of inner experience,
continually posing unsettling questions about our emotional realities
through his pictures. Once again, however, he inhabited this world quite
differently from other photographers exploring inner experience at the
time. Meatyard's "mirror" (as John Szarkowski used the term) was not
narcissistic. It looked back reflectively on the dreams and terrors of
metaphysical questions, not private arguments of faith or doubt.