Ralph Eugene Meatyard at the Art Institute of Chicago

Much is written about the biography of Ralph Eugene Meatyard. A Navy man, born in Illinois, he attended Williams College through the Navy’s V-12 program. He became a licensed optician and lived most of his life in Lexington, KY. In 1950, before his first child was born, he made a life changing decision: he bought a camera.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Untitled, date unknown Gelatin silver print, 6 5/8 x 5 3/4 in. All images © The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

That’s when he found his new calling. He fell for the technical questions that plague all photographers. To this run of the mill mix of lighting, focal lengths, and shutter speed he added things things that were found in his personality and in the counterculture of the 60’s. It seems like such a cliche to be a beatnik cultural warrior, but he was, and the body of work he produced during the 60s is remarkable.

Starting in 1961, he gave himself a decade to master photography. He had been a member of the Lexington Camera Club for six years by that point and was comfortable with standard photographic issues. Instead of casting a wider net he dug in to a narrower focus: Rolleiflex mid-size monochrome negatives and small prints. After eliminating any question of what camera to use, he was free to care about what would be his subject.

Meatyard, Ambrose Bierce, 1964 Gelatin silver print, 7 x 7 1/4 in.

On weekends, Meatyard would drive around looking for the crumbling ruins in the rural poverty that surrounded Lexington, KY, but not so he could shoot “ruins porn” or look for the personification of rural life like Shelby Lee Adams did in Appalachia. His children, who had grown up with a shutterbug dad were often his models. The images he took of them were not casual shots of kids at play in the backyard but were arresting compositions guided by his counterculture beliefs and framed with serious technical skill.

The Art Institute of Chicago currently has a first-rate exhibition of the images from his peak output. Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Dolls and Masks collects together Meatyard’s dense compositions, structures of silver and gray with doll faces hiding in the corners of crumbling architecture. He would allow his children to pose as they wanted to, there are a few repeats in their positions, but it adds to the mystery. His formal compositions and his subject matter seems impenetrable. His photographic explorations, motivated by zen philosophy and jazz improvisations, are a dense network of subconscious associations and uncanny resemblance. The natural, fleeting poses of his children fracture against the ponderous old man masks and oversized hands in which they are posing. Their bodies stand out against the stark and worn naturally lit backgrounds that often contain thick, unlit darkness.

Meatyard, Untitled, date unknown Gelatin silver print, 7 3/8 x 7 3/8 in.

Many of his images violate what we know to be true, but he never intended to photograph what was there. He was uninterested in mere optical facts or creating reassuring images. Instead, he wanted to create anew a universal subject that stood for something. He quotes Ambrose Bierce‘s Devils Dictionary in at least one title “Romance, n. Fiction that owes no allegiance to the God of Things as They Are.” His “sympathetic general subject” looks back to the type of images religions around the world used to teach the illiterate: Buddhist Thangkas, Eastern Icons, Catholic Altarpieces, etc. These images of people idealize rather than describe their subjects. Meatyard too does this, consciously forcing the subject into the uncanny valley between living creature and lifeless doll.

Like the religious icon, Meatyard’s figures are telling us something about how to live, who we are, and what we should expect in the future, it’s just impossible to definitively know what they are saying. A combination of “The Child is father of the Man” and “Show me your original face before your mother and father were born” these images challenge the viewer with “unfair arguments with existence.” Do the masks cover up the person, or does the person fill in the mask? Every subject in Meatyard’s photos are challenging the lens of the camera. Actively standing up to any amount of objectifying gaze, deformed but confident, these subjects go eyeball to eyeball with us. Even the youngest and presumably most innocent of these subjects stands facing us, boldly answering the questions his father was asking.