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Sunday Salon
with Greg Fallis

Ralph Meatyard

Given the oddity of his most famous photographs, there’s a strange poetry in the fact that Ralph Meatyard was born in a town called Normal, Illinois. Given the critical and artistic acclaim of his work, there’s irony in the fact that Meatyard was a weekend photographer who earned his living as an optician. Given the edgy and unsettling ambience of his photographs, there’s a paradox in the fact that Meatyard was a father of three, the president of his local Parent-Teacher Association and the coach of a Little League baseball team.

He was born in 1925. After a tour in the Navy, Meatyard settled in Lexington, Kentucky. He took a job with an optical firm that also developed optics for camera equipment. He bought a camera in 1950 to photograph his newborn child. In 1954 he joined a local camera club. By 1955 Meatyard was already taking the sort of portraits that would earn him praise from art critics, museum curators, Beat poets, and his fellow photographers.

Son and Mother at a Crypt, 1995


At some point between 1950 and 1955 Meatyard abandoned traditional portraiture. He developed a style that depended heavily on setting, on pose, and on blatant artifice…and yet one that still gives the impression of being spontaneous. He created images that were strange, eerie, sometimes nightmarish, sometimes merely quivering with anxiety. Even though many of his subjects were children, the anguish and foreboding depicted in Meatyard’s photographs are ageless.

His most memorable photographs…the ones which eventually brought him fame…involve cheap dime-store Halloween masks worn by the subjects or placed around the scene. Meatyard doesn’t try to present these masks or masked characters as anything other than what they are; he’s not attempting to disguise anything. He’s simply inserting another element of the grotesque into the frame.

Boy in Old Man’s Mask with Doll, 1960


The late 1950s and early 1960s in the U.S. saw the rise of the Beat Generation, which had a significant influence in Meatyard’s work. Through the Beat movement he was introduced to the concepts of Zen Buddhism, including the acceptance of the impermanence of life. A near-fatal heart attack in 1961 apparently reinforced that concept. A suggestion of spirituality…often a grim and gloomy spirituality…began to appear in much of his work.

Meatyard’s photographs had always featured dark spaces…rich, black, inky spaces that hinted at something outside or beyond the viewer’s ability to see. After his heart attack, those tenebrous spaces began to be inhabited by murky figures, figures that sometimes seem materialize out of the darkness. These figures not only heighten the aura of uneasiness but they seem to emphasize the intimation of inevitable mortality. By combining those spooky figures with the innocence of children, the image’s chemistry becomes almost volatile.

Two Children, 1962


Meatyard often liked to include a bit of motion in his photographs, a bit of intentional blur. Sometimes he’d deliberately jiggle the camera a tad when releasing the shutter, sometimes he’d have the subject move. These last photos were generally more effective. The blurred subject often seems to be in transition, though changing from what and to what remains a mystery.

Mystery is at the heart of Meatyards work. These are weirdly complex images revealing weird and complex emotions. One critic wrote that Meatyard’s best photographs resembled ““short stories that have never been written.” There is an odd literary feel to his work. There is no narrative there, of course, but in his best work there is the hint of being in a critical scene of an interrupted narrative. Something is happening in these photographs, something pivotal but not entirely unexpected.

Here-in-after, here-in-before, 1963


Despite being influenced by the Beat generation, despite the impact of his literary friends, Ralph Meatyard was distinctly not a hip sort of guy. He remained a working optician who owned a store that sold eyeglasses, a weekend photographer, and husband and father out of the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood mold. On those weekends, though, Meatyard became something extraordinary. On those weekends he became the Indiana Jones of the photography world, exploring the dark and hidden catacombs of the human psyche.

In 1970 Meatyard was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died in 1972, a week before his 47th birthday. His photography had received critical acclaim during his lifetime, but never achieved any popular success.