“More real than real”

It’s Sunday afternoon, possibly 1958 or 59, or maybe 1960. He loads everyone—his wife and three children: two young sons and a daughter—into the car that is already crammed with his camera and other photography paraphernalia. He’s also stowed away a jar with a mouse in formulin, pieces of “poetic garbage,” as well as a disturbing bunch of dolls he found earlier in an antique store. Things that he wants to use as props, the family members included. Now all that is left for him to do is drive them in and around Lexington, Kentucky to find the picture-perfect setting—an odd and neglected abandoned building. His youngest son would report decades later, “If a house didn’t have an antenna on the roof or a mailbox, then [my father] figured it was unused. If there was a door ajar he would survey it to see whether there was enough interesting texture or light to make it worth working there.” His mind made up, he poses one or two of his kids against a wall or in a corner or adrift in a room that speaks of better times. Afterward he urges his family back outside, to lean against the decaying exterior or to crouch in the dense woods or an isolated field. Behind every click of the shutter is a story, only the visual storyteller isn’t telling us its beginning or its ending.

This is the early work of Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925-1972). He was, I read, in constant pursuit of his subject matter’s emotional essence. The results are profoundly dark with unexpected light. Literally and figuratively. They are as unsettling as they are fantastic—he would have said, surreal, or rather SUR-real, “more real than real.” But the photographs also seem to say something about Meatyard, the man. I could see him sitting comfortably between Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums and the Addams Family; he was an eccentric with a gothic inclination.

His Kentucky neighbor and friend, the renowned writer and scholar Guy Davenport, liked to say, “Gene,” with his family, was always “up to something rich and strange”: making violet jam or listening to the Andrew Sisters—that boogie-woogie trio—singing Poe’s “Raven” over and over. Meatyard was a walking encyclopedia of bizarre accidents. He was passionate about literature and read everything from the poetry of William Carlos Williams to the phonebooks of London; he kept a notebook filled with “thousands of grotesque and absurd names.” He developed his film just once a year.

Like his pictures, Meatyard’s own story was left unresolved at the time of his death; he was only forty-six. The authenticity of his work was scrutinized critically—that he, an optician, a family man who took his camera out only on weekends could be more than a “dedicated amateur”—the label he had given himself. But toward the end of 2004 his story found its appropriate ending when for the first time the International Center of Photography mounted a Ralph Eugene Meatyard retrospective. In his carefully constructive narratives and his intense subjectivity, viewers could finally see his legacy to successive generations. Gregory Crewdson and Cindy Sherman and Justine Kurland among them.

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Sources: Guy Davenport, “Ralph Eugene Meatyard,” The Geography of the Imagination, 1981; Annette Grant, “The Photographer Who Masked His Subjects,” New York Times, December 5, 2004; James Rhem, “James Rhem on Ralph Eugene Meatyard, 1925 – 1972,” 1999, and Theodore McDermott, “The Family Albums of Ralph Eugene Meatyard,” 2006, ASX; Stephen Frailey, “Ralph Eugene Meatyard,” Artforum, February 2005; David Zax, “Ralph Eugene Meatyard: The Man Behind the Masks,” Smithsonian magazine, November 2011; Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

(Image by Ralph Eugene Meatyard reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


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