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Meatyard, Ralph Eugene
Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925–1972) was an American photographer who lived in Lexington, Kentucky. His most famous works involved masks, worn by posing people, or ordinary objects.
Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925—1972) [extract from the preface, by James Rhem of the Photo Poche #87 Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Actes Sud publishers, France. Posted at Wikipedia by permission of the publisher – 4/26/05
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.
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 early 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.
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