Ralph Eugene Meatyard at Art Institute of Chicago

Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Dolls and Masks
Art Institute of Chicago
July 2 – September 25, 2011

Highly original and deeply emotional, photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard‘s use of staged scenes foreshadows the work of many contemporary artists, such as Francesca Woodman, Cindy Sherman, Sally Mann, and Justine Kurland. His unorthodox, surrealistic, yet eerily beautiful images are now showcased in a new exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Dolls and Masks–on view July 2 through September 25, 2011, in Allerton Gallery 1 –presents more than 50 black-and-white works by one of the most enigmatic photographers of our time. Drawn from the photographer’s estate, this focused exhibition–containing works made before his iconic 1972 project The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater–examines dolls and masks across different bodies of work as a window onto his larger practice. This exhibition is the first major Art Institute showing of Meatyard’s work.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925-1972) has been on the fringes of photographic history–so much so that he once inserted one of his own prints into a personal copy of Beaumont Newhall’s seminal History of Photography , which had not included him. And yet his impact on photographic practice, belatedly recognized, has been significant. Born in Normal, Illinois in 1925, Meatyard served in the U.S. Navy and studied at Williams College and Illinois Wesleyan University. In 1950, he moved to Lexington, Kentucky, and went to work at Tinder-Krauss-Tinder, an optical firm, which also sold cameras and other photographic equipment. That same year he bought a camera to photograph the first of his three children. Meatyard spent the rest of his life in Lexington, where he eventually worked as an optician at his own shop, Eyeglasses of Kentucky, and photographed in his spare time. His membership in the Lexington Camera Club in 1954 led to an enduring friendship with his photography teacher, Van Deren Coke. In 1956, summer workshops at Indiana University brought him into contact with such influential photographers as Henry Holmes Smith, Aaron Siskind, and Minor White. These interactions paved the way for Meatyard to launch his own photographic vision. Solo and group exhibitions soon followed across the country.

The photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard not only defy convention, but they are also rich in literary allusion. A voracious reader, he found a likeminded community of writers and poets in Lexington, including Wendell Berry, Guy Davenport, Jonathan Greene, and James Baker Hall. Meatyard’s works have been called visionary, surrealistic, and meditative. Fascinated by the uncanniness of ordinary life, he was known to cast all three of his children–as well as his wife, Madelyn–as regular actors in his photographic stagings that often involve masks and abandoned spaces. His familiar, slightly disturbing, and deliberate images search for inner truths rather than ephemeral surfaces. Meatyard produced his culminating series, The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater, just before his untimely death from cancer in 1972. Conceived as an extended family album, the Lucybelle pictures feature Madelyn Meatyard posing with different friends or relatives in disfiguring masks and gained acclaim for the disquieting combination of the banal with the extraordinary.

Yet even before the Lucybelle series, during the immensely fertile period of about 1959 though the late 1960s from which this exhibition is drawn, Meatyard played with the tropes of dolls and masks, often photographing his wife and children with these props in landscapes and abandoned houses. These pictures put an uncanny spin on family photographs, exploring the contrasts between youth and age, childhood and mortality, intimacy and unknowability. For Meatyard, dolls and masks were not macabre or grotesque. Dolls represented a physical human presence, whether employed in a scene alongside people or instead of people. He used masks to universalize his sitters rather than make individual portraits, leveling identity so that viewers could approach a picture with a shared sympathy. Ultimately, Meatyard’s photographs remind us that we all wear masks; we put them on as we encounter each other and, most of all, we wear them before the camera.