The most significant force in photography during the past forty years has been the development of practices that accommodate subjectivity and interiority, recognizing that which is felt by the photographer as opposed to making any statement of fact. Although this approach now dominates contemporary photographic discourse, it has not always been so. In fact, the fundamental lexicon of the photographic subjective, not to mention the development of photographic narrative and the constructed image, emerged in the late '50s and early '60s from the unlikely precincts of Lexington, Kentucky, the handiwork of a professional optometrist with the provocative name of Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925-72).
While this photographer's perpetual outsider status has contributed to the lingering critical perception of his work's "authenticity"--he made his prints only once a year, during two-week vacations from his shop, Eyeglasses of Kentucky--Meatyard was no hayseed. He enjoyed the company of literary locals like Trappist monk and poet Thomas Merton and writer Wendell Berry, and his thinking was influenced by William Carlos Williams's poetics of the quotidian--particularly its manifestation in the book-length poem Paterson (1946-58). At the same time, through workshops with the photographic educators Van Deren Coke and Henry Holmes Smith, Meatyard's photographs gradually achieved an original synthesis of the metaphysics of Minor White, the modernism of Aaron Siskind, and the influence of Zen Buddhism, as represented in the current retrospective in sections titled "Abstractions" and "Light on Water" and the series "Zen Twigs," 1959-63. Consisting of more than 150 prints selected from archives at the University of Kentucky by novelist and Meatyard friend Guy Davenport, and organized by the International Center of Photography's Cynthia Young, the show offers an opportunity to assess all the bodies of work produced in the artist's rather short lifetime.
Even viewed in this context, Meatyard's originality is easy to miss, as his iconography is all too familiar to contemporary art audiences. The regularly appearing masks, the doll parts, the shards of mirror, the blurred faces, the abandoned farmhouse, and the graveyard in his work form an index of the haunted that has influenced every part of visual culture. (Indeed, the legacy of his work is its implicit influence on several generations of photography that includes the likes of Emmet Gowin, Francesca Woodman, Simen Johan, and Roger Ballen, as well as, for better or worse, legions of undergraduate photography students seeking a melancholic language of self-expression.) But what the exhibition reveals particularly well in subtle and elegant prints is the tension Meatyard regularly produced between luminosity and darkness. No academic exercise, his compositions create a powerful support for secrecy as figures are pulled, like Boo Radley, from shadow and darkness by the viewer. This darkness provides, ultimately, a more powerful masking than the more literal one employed in the later series "The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater," 1969-72, in which Meatyard photographed members of the local Lexington community wearing dime-store masks for his last, and wittiest, body of work.
It is ultimately this engagement with light and shadow, grouped by Young under the heading "Romances," that is the most persuasive here and which forms the basis of Meatyard's real importance. Accompanied throughout the '60s by his three children on weekend excursions in the Kentucky countryside, Meatyard would photograph his kids in remote fields, dense woods, and derelict and abandoned houses. Often in pairs, and with their identities veiled by blurred visages and darkness, the children are portrayed with a sense of silence, contemplation, and isolation, bearing out the intimacy of a father's attention and forming their own kind of poignant and peculiar family album. In one, a child lies with eyes closed in a rectangle of light, surrounded by total blackness save for a square of window floating in the darkness, with trees framed inside it. In another, a boy stands against a dank and shredded interior wall, his gaze to the camera open and playful, his outstretched hand clutching that of a female mannequin. In a third, a hooded child sits peering into a plate of glass, the reflected light from a nearby window dissolving his face.
Part of the accomplishment of these images is their prescient rejection of any sentimentality of childhood (typically a weakness in popular photography). Despite its sense of play, the work also embodies a profound recognition of the sadness and solemnity that complicates the presumed joy of childhood--in particular, a recognition of the dimensions of secrecy and shame that form the experience of adolescence. The eloquence of a father's appreciation of childhood as a story of wisdom and innocence is compelling, and this insight could be considered as part of the narrative culture of place. All Meatyard's work is pervaded by a sense of emotional weight, even foreboding, and can be seen as embedded in a southern mythology where the ghosts of history are a daily fact. In these images of children in derelict houses, and throughout the work, one may recognize a photographic tradition where the literary concerns of Truman Capote, Harper Lee, and Flannery O'Connor are visualized, and the vernacular past combines with the apparition of childhood. And so his photographs, taken cumulatively, seem a rumination on the material world as fleeting; as a transparent and ethereal place that dissolves into light and age. This is perhaps a fitting legacy for someone who died at the early age of 47, but it stands in contrast to the enduring quality of images so deeply ingrained in our visual consciousness.
"Ralph Eugene Meatyard" is on view at the ICP, New York, through Feb. 27.
Stephen Frailey is a photographer and Chair of the Photography Department, Bachelor of Fine Arts degree program, School of Visual Arts, New York.← Back to Writing