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RALPH EUGENE MEATYARD

by Mario Cutajar

(Paul Kopeikin Gallery, West Hollywood) It is a cruel but fitting irony for a photographer as profoundly distrustful of appearances as Ralph Meatyard (1925-1972) was, that he should owe his posthumous recognition in part to being misunderstood as a precursor of art-school manufactured talents like Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince. Their success is testimony to little besides the profitability of indulging the undiminished need of an aging population of baby boomers to distance themselves from their ostensibly simple-minded, repressed parents.


The basis for this induction of Meatyard into the postmodernist pantheon is the blatant theatricality of his staged images, and his quite evident disdain for the objectivity of photography. That these qualities distinguish his work from that of his anti-pictorialist contemporaries (Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and other proponents of "pure" photography) is unquestionable. But there are other qualities (or lack of) in Meatyard's work that make it equally resistant to postmodernist affiliation. For one thing, it is neither ideologically motivated nor self-consciously subversive. It is not constrained by the petty resentments of identity politics. It is free of both smarty pants irony and the cheap, cultivated anomie of the unattached (Meatyard was a family man). It is personal in the way personal used to mean before Americans started to flock to talk shows to compete at being freaks.

The images he is justly renowned for (among 25 on display) are the ones of children and adults wearing dime-store Halloween masks. The device is so transparent that part of the pictures' intrigue is why they work at all. They do because of Meatyard's eye for setting and pose, because of his ability to extract startling black-and-white contrasts from the silver-rich photographic paper he used (contrasts that create amorphous voids out of which the masked figures materialize like apparitions), but just as importantly because Meatyard never tried to disguise his artifice. Later on toward the premature end of his life when he shot the Lucybelle Crater series, he even dispensed with the murky backgrounds and relied entirely on the transgressive impact of his masked figures nonchalantly inhabiting the daylit world like regular folk--as if they belonged.


© Ralph Eugene Meatyard,
“Romance (N) from
Ambrose Bierce #3,”
gelatin-silver print, 1962.





© Ralph Eugene Meatyard,
“Untitled,” gelatin-
silver print, 1962.

These grotesques (which were only a fraction of Meatyard's output but which were the fruit of an obsession that endured throughout his life) are most closely allied to painterly antecedents than photographic ones. They recall the odd family portraits painted by the Douanier Rousseau, Ensor's masked characters, and, more distantly, Goya's caricatures. Their psychic source can easily be located in a sense of estrangement from the world that crosses over into depersonalization, except that Meatyard--who made his living as an optician, raised a family, and lived a settled life in Lexington, Kentucky--was not a withdrawn or morose individual. The singular oddness of his work intimates, rather, an appreciation of the more ubiquitous and easily overlooked oddness of individuality itself and of the dissociation inherent in the photographic process, whose arrest of time makes moments eternal at the price of removing them from our possession.