Current Feature: Ralph Eugene Meatyard
Ralph Eugene Meatyard: All The World's A Stage
by Lev Feigin
The critic Roland Barthes once wrote that “photography touches art not through painting but through theater,” reminding us that before Daguerre presented his silver-coated plates to the French Academy of Sciences, he was known as a proprietor of a Diorama theater, a popular Parisian spectacle of lights and painterly backdrops. The dramatic stage is implicit in the camera’s frame. Its shutter curtain lifts to immobilize the human face into a mask, the gesture into a pantomime.
Barthes’ words are useful to keep in mind when looking at the work of Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Few twentieth century photographers have explored the elusive connections between the photographic image and theatre with such haunting poignancy.
Meatyard was born in Normal, Illinois and lived in Lexington, Kentucky where he plied his trade as a full-time optician. In 1950, he bought a camera to photograph his newborn son. A self-taught photographer, Meatyard would continue to call himself a “dedicated amateur”, even after his photographs were exhibited alongside those of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.
By the time of his death, in 1972, Meatyard would produce a vast body of work, thousands of extraordinary images, from Zen-inspiring abstractions to his surreal take on the Southern Gothic.
Working six days a week, Meatyard took pictures on Sundays. While the rest of Kentucky attended church, the Meatyards – his wife, Madelyn, two boys, Michael and Christopher, and little Melissa – packed into the family car and drove all around the state in search of abandoned houses and creepy stretches of forest where they could perform their illusions. They brought with them a miscellany of props: dolls, masks, dead birds, even rubber chickens.
Meatyard staged the photographs like primitive theatrical rituals. The family scouted for a setting. The father composed the scene through the viewfinder and then positioned his subjects, telling them how to stand and where to look.
The children stooped in tall grasses in empty front yards, leaned against broken doorways in clean, white T-shirts as they faced the lens looking forlorn, cowering, casting glances at derelict corners of domestic ruins – their hands juxtaposed against weathered planks of wood. They peered from the crosses of window sashes. They sat on empty porches, crouched and closed their eyes among shafts of sunlight. They became blurs. They morphed into silhouettes while black paint smears on the walls hung over them like the Grim Reaper.
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