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Ralph Eugene Meatyard: dolls and masks.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, a self proclaimed "dedicated amateur," was a very prolific and creative photographer. He first purchased a camera to photograph his newborn son, but was eventually drawn into a vortex of creativity that lasted until his untimely death from cancer at the age of 47. He had also suffered a heart attack when only 36.

At a time when the new documentary photographers dominated America, Meatyard, admittedly worked in the "romantic-surreal," abstract and symbolic tradition while following his muse. His subjects were as varied as his imagination. He painted images to be photographed, photographed ice, sunlight on water, twigs and created "No-Focus" pictures among others.

While he fabricated scenes to be photographed, his photographs were un-manipulated as he adhered to the tradition of straight photography of Edward Weston, Minor White and Ansel Adams. His 5 1/2 x 8 3/4 inch darkly printed gelatin silver prints in this exhibition may, at first glance, seem modest and inconsequential, yet they are a prelude to his tour de force project, "The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater" (1974).

Originating at The Art Institute of Chicago (July 2-September 25, 2011), a retrospective exhibition of his work "Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Dolls and Masks" opened at the De Young Museum, San Francisco on October 8, 2011 and will continue through February 26, 2012. It travels to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (May 19-August 5, 2012).

Life and early development

Born on May 15, 1925 in Normal, Illinois, Meatyard attended Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts from 1943-44, during WW II under the Navy V-12 program, and later, Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington, Illinois where he studied philosophy. He married Madelyn McKinney in 1946 and they had three children:

Michael (1950), Christopher (1955) and Melissa (1959).

Meatyard apprenticed as an optician in Chicago and after receiving his license accepted a job at Tinder-Kraus-Tinder in Lexington, Kentucky where he worked until he opened his own business, Eyeglasses of Kentucky, in 1967. Perception was a subject of special interest for Meatyard. Other than a trip to New York City on one occasion, he never traveled far from his family and friends in Lexington, Kentucky.

In spite of what could have been a provincial life in Lexington, he developed a wide circle of literary and artistic friends which included the writers and poets Wendell Berry, Guy Davenport, Jonathan Greene and Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk. Among his photographer friends were James Baker Hall, Roger Mertin and Van Deren Coke. Meatyard was an avid reader and amassed a large book collection.

But it was the Lexington Camera Club, under Van Deren Coke's leadership, which had the most influence on Meatyard's development as a photographer. Coke, who later emerged as a major photographer, historian and curator, became Meatyard's mentor.

Meatyard learned the techniques of photography and that extraordinary photographs could be made in one's own backyard. All of Meatyard's photographs were made near home in and around northern Kentucky. He also learned the importance of photography as revelation rather than as documents. Meatyard and Coke collaborated in 1955-56 on a documentary project in which they photographed Georgetown Street in Lexington, but the results did not reveal the potential of either photographer.

Soon after Coke's tutelage Meatyard and Coke attended a workshop at Indiana University taught by the major photo educators Henry Holmes Smith, Aaron Siskind and Minor White. It was an experience which validated the fact that photography was an art form equivalent to painting and sculpture.

A wide variety of issues were discussed including critical analysis and the philosophy of Zen which especially influenced Meatyard. At the time there were very few venues for learning about photography or photographic criticism anywhere in America, so this was a unique opportunity. He also subscribed to "Aperture" magazine, which was then the major American photography magazine, and through it gained a greater understanding of art photography.

Meatyard produced thousands of negatives and made six to seven hundred prints each year. He photographed on the weekend and printed his photographs during his annual vacations. His print quality is striking as evidenced in the current exhibition.

He constructed his photographs against various backgrounds, usually found in abandoned and deteriorating buildings. The subjects in "Dolls and Masks" were members of his family, who, after finding the right location, became the actors in his theatre of the uncanny. In the trunk of his vehicle he carried a collection of props which he had acquired in thrift shops and junk yards--masks, dismembered dolls, flags and other objects which he could place in the scene.

Never an accidental photograph

Meatyard's credo was, "I will never make an accidental photograph." Nevertheless, he frequently did not title his photographs, allowing the viewer the freedom to engage their imagination.

One of his signature photographs, "Romance (N) from Ambrose Bierce # 3" (1962) shows four masked children sitting in numbered bleachers. Their poses form individual triangles within a larger implied triangle. The child in the foreground creates a triangle with her symmetrically outstretched legs. The other two children create their own triangular forms with their bent knees and elbows. The figure in the upper right of the scene seems to interrupt the repeated triangular compositions. Their four postures are as varied as are their rubber masks which contradict their youthful bodies and dress.

"Ambrose Bierce" (1964) is a similar image but shot in what appears to be an embankment or perhaps a quarry. This time the subjects--ranging from Meatyard's wife on the left, who is standing, and taller than his three children who seated facing the camera--are spread out. All assume different poses and wear entirely different masks. These two photographs are complementary and are even placed near one another in the exhibition, yet they are quite unique. The placement of the figures, and the choice of masks and postures, is not accidental. Some of these same masks will reappear in subsequent photographs.

"Unlimited" (1959), is an unusual suite of photographs. Three head shots of three different doll heads are placed side by side. Their lifeless stares are vacant and in vain. The first doll head is plain and has vision. The second, which has a thick head of light hair, is eyeless: She appears to have no vision. The third doll, which is the best preserved, has one good eye while the other eye is partially obstructed. These close-up head shots seem to dominate the exhibition as the dolls stare into the room, yet their vision is disturbingly obscured.

The viewer is left with their own interpretation in the same way that the photographer was left with the decision of what to capture when clicking the shutter of his camera. It is interesting to note that while Meatyard almost never commented on the intent of his photographs (at a lecture in 1972 he did comment, "The mask is no man," and "Everybody has a mask on"), he was interested in listening to the comments of others.

"Untitled" (1964) is a series of seven photographs and is unusual for the time. The subject is a boy, presumably in his teens, dressed in an athletic shirt, shorts and tennis shoes. He is photographed wearing different masks posed in different locations against the same brick wall in six of the photographs, and against a wooden fence in the final photograph. His masks and the position of his arms and hands change in each photograph, making each composition unique, yet a part of the whole. By the end of the 1970's serial photography became more prevalent in photography.

"Untitled" (1959) shows a young boy holding a small doll, while wearing the oversized mask of an elderly man, sitting among the leaves in a doorway , perhaps leading to a cellar. "Untitled" (1960) is likely the same boy with a doll, but wearing a different mask and also wearing a large hand prominently displayed. It is so darkly printed that the hand eerily dominates the photograph. Meatyard's strongest photographs are the ones where he limits the number of subjects and objects in the photograph.

Meatyard's "Dolls and Masks" partakes of a lengthy history. Masks have been used for disguise, protection, performance and ritual throughout human existence. There are animal masks in the cave paintings of Lascaux, perhaps used in shamanistic rituals. A Neolithic ceramic mask has been found which dates back to 7000 B.C. while the funeral "Mask of Agamemnon" dates from 1550-1500 B.C.

African masks have been used in ceremonies, rituals, celebrations and within secret communities. The painters James Ensor, Oskar Schlemmer and Pablo Picasso were all attracted to masks and incorporated them in their paintings. Picasso's famous painting "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907) shocked the art world. The five nude figures all wear African mask-like faces and appear menacing.

Similarly, dolls, also, have a long history and are the oldest known toy. Made of clay, wood, bone, ivory, and rags, they have been discovered in Egyptian graves as early as 2,000 B.C. Dolls have also been found in children's graves in Greece and Rome. Dolls are also used in religious rituals such as voodoo and by the Southwestern Indians where the kachina dolls represent invisible spirits. In Haiti dolls are the messengers to the underworld.

Mannequins, models of the human body, are often the subject of Giorgio De Chirico's pre-Surrealistic paintings. And Hans Bellmer, the German artist and photographer, created a series of life sized flexible sculptures of young women which he then photographed. Meatyard's subjects continue in this enigmatic tradition.

Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst, who had a special interest in art and literature, viewed the mask or persona as the protective covering that hides the personal, intimate and vulnerable parts of our psyche from the world. Our persona is the role that we play; it is our public face. We all wear masks of which we often are unaware. Meatyard, however, consciously selected the masks that he placed on the dramateurs who performed before his camera lens.

Meatyard's most famous photographs, "The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater," was published in 1974. Consisting of sixty-four 7x 7 inch photographs of his wife placed next to relatives and friends, all of whom are wearing masks, they were completed in 1972 just before his death. He had intended that the photographs be placed in an old fashion family album with black pages and captions handwritten by Meaytyard in white beneath the photograph. What a simple, yet innovative idea. These photographs were the culmination of his photographic career and the work by which he is best known.

The meaning of Meatyard's photographs is enigmatic. Meatyard did not comment on them. His mask and doll photographs are clearly situated in a long and ancient tradition dating back to antiquity. Carl Jung provided some insight into the purpose of the masks that we all wear. Artists often raise questions without providing answers. These may be also be seen as symbolic death masks as Meatyard had a heart attack at the age of thirty-six followed by the diagnosis of cancer several years later.

However, when asking what Meatyard's images may mean, the comments of James Hillman, the prominent Jungian analyst and author of "The Souls Code," (1997) comes to mind. Hillman wrote, "We sin against the imagination whenever we ask an image for its meaning, requiring that images be translated into concepts ... We do not hear music, touch sculpture or read stories with meaning in mind, but for the sake of imagination." And Meatyard was a very imaginative artist.

Darwin Marable, Ph.D., is a photo and art historian, critic, lecturer, and independent curator based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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Title Annotation:THE ARTS
Author:Marable, Darwin
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2012
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