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introducing mr. ralph eugene meatyard

If you're not familiar with the amazing photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, the NYT has your back today, with an introductory piece by Grace Glueck:

Of all the photographers of the ordinary, Ralph Eugene Meatyard is perhaps the most oddball, giving reality a flip that often puts it into the realm of sur-reality. His creepy, staged shots of family and friends in strange masks but homey settings, or unmasked in derelict places that turn spooky, are weirdly unsettling while at the same time involved with the familiar interactions of everyday life.

Like any fond father, Meatyard (1925-1972), now the subject of a major exhibition at the International Center of Photography, photographed his children growing up. But it wouldn't do just to shoot them in usual haunts. He liked to take his wife and their three children to broken-down houses around Lexington, Ky., the town he lived in most of his life, and depict them playing, jumping and rolling around, wearing masks or making faces, in dank interiors with broken windows, or standing aimlessly in front of the ruined facades.

Wanting to capture the mysterious, inexpressible ties among people, Meatyard did not coax smiles or pleasing body language or any sentiment at all from his subjects. Vacant stares and brooding countenances are more the rule, the kinds of expressions you catch on people when they are lost in reverie, out of response mode.

My favorite Meatyard portraits are actually a series of self-portraits taken shortly before his death from cancer. The final picture shows him turned away from the camera, walking up a hillside. It's an eery and sweet goodbye. Glueck ends her piece talking about these:

Looking far older than his years, his once trim hair unkempt and shaggy, he sits outdoors on the equally unkempt grass of a hill, again gazing intently at the camera. In two sequential pictures, he gets up, turns for a last look, then walks laboredly away. He is leaving, and the show ends.

Glueck doesn't quite get the Lucybelle Crater photos, which is fine, but they have as much to say as his other work. I think they feel too willfully odd to some people and again, that's fine. But there is more there.

The best thing about the oddity of Meatyard's photos is how natural and effortless it is. He's a fascinating guy. This is just who he was. He was an optometrist in Lexington, Ky., who hung his weird photos on the walls of his business and hung out with the Camera Club. He was also a fringe figure on the edge of many of the more radical artists/thinker types floating around at the time -- Thomas Merton (who he took some great portraits of -- including one on that page with the monk in a baseball cap) and Wendell Berry being two -- but had much more vanilla political views than they did. He kept a notebook of odd names he ran across, several pages of which are reproduced in Ralph Eugene Meatyard: An American Visionary.

If you live in New York, you should note that his work is receiving its first major showing there, assembled by his friend Guy Davenport (and the reason for the NYT piece): "Ralph Eugene Meatyard" is at the International Center of Photography, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, at 43rd Street, Manhattan, (212) 857-0000, through Feb. 27.

Meanwhile, check out the slide show.


  • At 4:27 PM , Blogger Trent said...

    Interesting photos. I really liked the self-portrait.


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