Ralph Eugene Meatyard began his life in a profession far-removed, yet strangely attached to photography. It was as an optician that vision and its capabilities became a part of his life. It's also this beginning that undoubtedly contributed to his searingly unique perspective.
Born in Normal, Illinois, in 1925, Meatyard purchased his first camera at the age of 25. He became a member of the Lexington Camera Club whose fellow members provided him with a foot-up and an everlasting cornerstone to inform his artistic direction throughout his career.
Initially, the camera had a purpose. It wasn't an artistic decision, rather one that was bought to help preserve memories, to serve a purpose. His newborn child wouldn't stay young for long after all. The camera was his way of retaining those early days. His formative use of the object clearly had a profound impact on his eventual output. The idea of documenting moments, rather than just capturing a person, never abated, although they became more abstract. Perhaps with his child in mind, Meatyard's focus was always on the person - no matter how they manifested in the final image.
The thing that set Meatyard apart from the beginning was his voracious appetite to learn and his tireless consumption of anything that would help him to do so. He attended a series of summer workshops presided over by American fine-arts photographer Henry Holmes Smith at Indiana University.
Influenced by Zen philosophy, Meatyard worked in a feverish manner, seemingly at odds with the teachings that governed his thought. Meatyard was the Jack Kerouac of photography, creating in bursts, allowing himself to be completely overcome by the subjects, by the moment, and by the need to work. At other times, his life would slow down to a more managible pace. It was either all work, or all life, although the two uniquely integrated themselves from the start - he was always on one side of the sliding scale.
His necessity for having subjects at hand meant that he'd use his children as guinea pigs to apply his increasingly theoretical and conceptual approach to his chosen art. Masks are a common motif throughout his work and take on a deep symbolic significance. For him, they are a means of exploring the myriad implications of 'identity', specifically of Southern America, alongside being a means of applying an extra physical layer of matter. They were another life implanted onto something already living. With this in mind, his photographs could be viewed as many. They are layered and as such, we must decode each one individually to understand the whole.
The finished products look spontaneous. Like a bizarre string of surrealist, often nightmarish, glimpses into another world we get sucked in. Despite the numerous subtexts at play, the images appear effortless, as if they're shot-from-the-hip street photographs. It's the mixture of thought-through photography and conversely, erratic development, that give them their agitated life. The blur and the brains together evoke a hallucinatory atmosphere that resonates long after the audience have taken their eyes back.
Despite the seeming similarities to street photography, his work was widely considered to be the antithesis of the form in that they weren't the typical manifestations of 'gritty' that were becoming popular elsewhere in America and that defined the style. He was a happily married man with children, president of the Parent-Teacher Association and coach of a junior baseball team. There was a clear cognitive dissonance at play when people came to imagine an 'artist' and the realities of Meatyard.
Regardless of what aspect we look at with the man or his creations, he persistently managed to defy conventions and in doing so paved a way for photographers to follow. It would seem that his path is one that many photographers dare not follow, possible out of respect, possibly out of fear of failing to capture his intense vision. Meatyard is Meatyard. No one else will be able to occupy that mantel. Looking at his work, it would be difficult to wish for a new one. Some things are best left untouched. Such is the case with the ground Meatyard walked on.
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