Ralph Eugene Meatyard was a visionary photographer known for his dreamlike black & white photographs of family members in masks, elegant portraits of bohemian friends and radical experiments in abstraction. Meatyard’s unique visual language was the product of a naturally curious mind stimulated by a love of literature and the spoken word. His shadowy photographs – often featuring dark dilapidated locales populated by enigmatic characters – have drawn comparisons to Southern Gothic literature.
Meatyard’s interest in Zen Buddhism guided his intuitive process for making photographs. His practice relied upon the photographer achieving a “sensitized state,” putting trust in the mind’s eye instead of intellect to clearly see the intricacies of the physical world. Meatyard’s metaphysical approach to picture-making helped redefine the genre of fine-art photography in the 1960s. Through a myriad of complex projects, many predicated upon the constructed or staged photograph, Meatyard created “tableau vivants” filled with symbolic language that served as signifiers in the creation of the artist’s visual vocabulary. Meatyard’s subjective use of the camera has since influenced new generations of photographers. Today, he is recognized as a pioneer of surreal, experimental and nonobjective photography.
Meatyard was an integral part of Kentucky’s post-war art and literary intelligentsia. His circle of friends included photographers, painters, poets, scholars, writers and philosophers. Meatyard’s interest in photography grew from his professional life as a practicing optician and working knowledge of lens technology. A desire to document his growing family led to his purchase of a camera in 1950. From the 1950s onward, he would photograph exclusively in his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky and the surrounding countryside.
The Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard opens at Ogden Museum of Southern Art on October 1, 2022 and will be on view through January 23, 2023. The exhibition is curated by Richard McCabe, Curator of Photography at Ogden Museum of Southern Art, in collaboration with Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco and Ralph Eugene Meatyard Estate.
Ralph Eugene Meatyard lived in Lexington, Kentucky, where he made his living as an optician while creating an impressive and enigmatic body of photographs. Meatyard’s creative circle included mystics and poets, such as Thomas Merton and Guy Davenport, as well as the photographers Cranston Ritchie and Van Deren Coke, who were mentors and fellow members of the Lexington Camera Club.
Meatyard’s work spanned many genres and experimented with new means of expression, from dreamlike portraits—often set in abandoned places—to multiple exposures, motion-blur, and other methods of photographic abstraction. He also collaborated with his friend Wendell Berry on the 1971 book The Unforeseen Wilderness, for which Meatyard contributed photographs of Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. Meatyard’s final series, The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater, are cryptic double portraits of friends and family members wearing masks and enacting symbolic dramas.
Museum exhibitions of the artist’s work have recently been presented at The Art Institute of Chicago; The Philadelphia Museum of Art; the de Young Museum, San Francisco; The International Center of Photography, New York; Cincinnati Museum of Art, Ohio; the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson; and Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, Texas. His works are held in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, SFMOMA, J. Paul Getty Museum, The Eastman Museum, and Yale University Art Gallery, among others. Monographs include American Mystic, Dolls and Masks, A Fourfold Vision, and The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater and Other Figurative Photographs.