RALPH EUGENE MEATYARD
On ViewDC Moore Gallery
November 19 – December 23, 2015
Ralph Eugene Meatyard, a married father of three children, was an optician who lived and worked in Lexington, Kentucky, where he owned an eyeglass shop called “Eyeglasses of Kentucky.” When he taught himself to use his first Rolleiflex, purchased in 1950, he uncovered a preternatural talent for photography. Up until his untimely death in 1972 (a week shy of his forty-seventh birthday), Meatyard dedicated his weekends to his hobby, touring the countryside with his wife and children in tow, finding abandoned barns and farmhouses where he could shoot ostensibly bucolic family images.
A comprehensive, eponymously titled exhibition highlighted terrific examples of Meatyard’s playful and cunning subversion of the pastoral, which keeps his photographs from being relegated to the realm of run-of-the-mill family snapshots. It also introduces lesser-known bodies of Meatyard’s work—stellar examples of his nature photography, still lifes, and images he referred to as “Motion-Sound” pieces, which are suggestive of, and influenced by, the rhythms of jazz. In these too there are most often destabilizing elements that upset the eye and arrest the viewer, who must make a considered study in order to fully grasp what’s been captured. Many of the forty photographs were on view for the first time, a rare thrill for photography devotees.
In the archetypal work Untitled (1962), the photographer’s three young children, Michael, Christopher, and Melissa, cavort in a large pile of leaves on the bank of a pond. The two boys face the camera while the little girl looks down and off to one side, their reflections visible in the water before them. The image is carefully composed and thoughtfully framed—the kids are three fixed points of a triangle emerging from the leaf heap. They all hold up their hands in a claw-like manner, as if they are pretending to be animals. The two boys, who wear unnerving masks that realistically resemble the faces of grown men, completely upend the quotidian nature of the photograph. Suddenly, it seems tinged with danger, inspiring an anxiety on behalf of the smallest child, the only one with an uncovered face. It’s useful to examine one of Meatyard’s still lifes, like Untitled (1961), elsewhere in the gallery. Composed of objects on a table—two glass vases, a bowl, some stacked plates, and a cast clothing iron—it’s a traditional image intentionally marred by a heavy chain draped over the objects, and overseen by a spectral doll, blurred, and standing in the doorway of the room. The quality of creepy tableau vivant in the children’s picture is underscored in relation to the still-life, and makes clear the deliberate efforts Meatyard took in composing each of his shots.
Meatyard frequently used masks and dolls in his staged photographs to great effect, turning children’s playthings into objects of the uncanny. In another untitled image from 1962, the three children are situated by a small creek, which bisects the photograph nearly at the center. Abundant sunshine catches the fauna of the brush and dapples the water. Meatyard’s daughter, her face again uncovered, stands in tall brush on one side of the water while her oldest brother kneels on the opposite bank, gazing towards something unknown outside the frame. One baby doll sits in the foreground on the same bank “staring” across the water while another dangles ominously between the boy’s fingers. Behind them, the third child stands on a small bridge, overlooking the scene, donning an eerie mask. With these images, Meatyard seems to have intuited the crumbling of the ideals of the American Dream that would soon become the touchstone of the 1960s. They also share major themes with iconic American photographers—Diane Arbus’s orchestrated subjects (who sometimes wear masks), Cindy Sherman’s costumed self-portraits, or Sally Mann’s series of her daughters.
Less well-known than his staged photographs, Meatyard’s images of nature are also given an ambitious presentation. Many of them seem to share an affinity with images by Josef Sudek, the Czech photographer whose shots of trees and composed still-lifes were often infused with portentous undertones. Meatyard was drawn to Zen practice, first introduced to him by Minor White, with whom he studied briefly in the mid-1950s when he attended a summer photography workshop. White’s desolate farm landscapes and scrupulous images of sprigs, frost patterns, and the ripples of water also exerted a clear influence on Meatyard. There is a meditative quality to his nature photographs even as he simultaneously reveals the discordant note in each. In Untitled (1963), a lone twig stands erect in the center of the frame, its top curled in on itself, forming an eyehole. The image is suffused with winter light and the entire background is blurred to oblivion—a large dark mound sitting at some distance beyond the twig, is unreadable. The twig has a delicacy that is aching and emotional, while its background creates a sense of foreboding. It may as well be the dried remnant of a plant in January as the lone organic component remaining after a nuclear apocalypse.
In one of the rarely-before-seen “Motion-Sound” works, 17 – #9 Motion (ca, 1968 – 72), the artist’s experiments with his camera—an intentional dearth of focus, slow shutter speed, and making multiple exposures—transform a group of trees swaying in the wind into the frenetic notes of a jazz composition. Meatyard’s instinctual capacity for capturing duality in nearly every image he made spotlights the dualities that exist everywhere, in all situations, all the time. This show will surely contribute to our understanding of the many nuances of his work, and of Meatyard’s place in the pantheon of 20th-century photographers.