Ralph Eugene Meatyard (May 15, 1925 – May 7, 1972) was an American photographer from Normal, Illinois, U.S. Meatyard was born in Normal, Illinois and raised in the nearby town of Bloomington. When he turned 18 during World War II, he joined the United States Navy, though he did not serve overseas before the war ended. After leaving the force he briefly studied pre-dentistry, before training to become an optician. He moved with his new wife Madelyn to Lexington, Kentucky to continue working as an optician for Tinder-Krausse-Tinder, a company which also sold photographic equipment. The owners of the company were active members of the Lexington Camera Club, for which the Art Department of the University of Kentucky provided exhibition space. Meatyard purchased his first camera in 1950 to photograph his newborn first child, and subsequently worked primarily with a Rolleiflex
medium-format camera. He joined the Lexington Camera club and the Photographic Society of America in 1954. At the Lexington Camera Club he met Van Deren Coke, who exhibited work by Meatyard in an exhibition for the university entitled Creative Photography
During the mid-1950s, Ralph Eugene Meatyard attended a series of summer workshops run by Henry Holmes Smith at Indiana University, and also with Minor White
, who fostered Meatyard's interest in Zen Philosophy. An autodidact and voracious reader, Meatyard worked in productive bursts, often leaving his film undeveloped for long stretches, then working feverishly in the makeshift darkroom in his home. "His approach was somewhat improvisational and very heavily influenced by the jazz music of the time."
He used his children in his work addressing the surreal "masks"
Much of his work was made in abandoned farmhouses in the central Kentucky bluegrass region during family weekend outings and in derelict spaces around Lexington. Some of his earliest camera work was made in the traditionally African-American neighborhood around Lexington's Old Georgetown Street. Meatyard was a close acquaintance of several well-known writers in the Kentucky literary renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s, including his neighbor Guy Davenport, who later helped compile a posthumous edition of his photos. In 1971, Meatyard co-authored a book on Kentucky's Red River Gorge, The Unforeseen Wilderness
, with writer Wendell Berry. The two frequently traveled into the Appalachian foothills. Berry and Meatyard's book contributed to saving the gorge from destruction by a proposed Army Corps of Engineers dam. Meatyard's ashes were scattered in the gorge after his death.
Meatyard was also a friend and correspondent of Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton, who lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery just west of Bardstown, Kentucky. Merton appeared in a number of Meatyard's experimental photographs taken on the grounds of the monastery, and they shared an interest in literature, philosophy, and Eastern and Western spirituality. Meatyard wrote Merton's eulogy in the Kentucky Kernel shortly after his death in Bangkok, Thailand, in December 1968. Meatyard died four years later, in 1972, of cancer.
Though Lexington was not a well-established center of photography, Meatyard did not consider himself a "Southern"
or regional photographer. His work was beginning to be recognized nationally at the time of his death, shown and collected by some prominent museums and published in magazines. He exhibited with photographers including Edward Weston
, Ansel Adams
, Minor White, Aaron Siskind
, Harry Callahan
, Robert Frank
, and Eikoh Hosoe
. By the late 1970s, his photographs appeared mainly in exhibitions of 'southern' art, but have since attracted renewed interest. His best-known photography featured dolls and masks, or family, friends and neighbors pictured in abandoned buildings or in ordinary suburban backyards.
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 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
, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
, 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
Source: Fraenkel Gallery