Strange Days

 

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Monday through Friday, Ralph Eugene Meatyard was an ordinary optician and family man—think coach of his son’s Little League team and president of the local PTA—but when the weekend rolled around, he was anything but. On those days, he’d pile his wife and children into the car, stow an assorted collection of dismembered dolls and dimestore masks in the trunk, and set out into the Kentucky wilderness to stage some of the most radical, unsettling photographs his contemporaries had ever seen.

Those haunting images comprise Wildly Strange: The Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, a new collaborative exhibition by the Blanton Museum of Art and the Harry Ransom Center. Culled from the Ransom Center’s collection of more than 5 million photographs and curated by Jessica McDonald, Wildly Strange is on display now through June 21 in the Blanton galleries.

Part self-professed “dedicated amateur” photographer, part “backwoods oracle,” as the New York Times called him, Meatyard wore many hats—or in his case, masks—throughout his photography career in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. After purchasing his first camera simply to document his newborn son, Meatyard quickly dedicated himself to the craft, eventually finding his way to the Lexington Camera Club—which also produced nationally celebrated photographers like Van Deren Coke—in 1954.

At the time, most photography in the U.S. appeared in publications like Life Magazine and National Geographic, which documented news across the globe. Photography was not yet a recognized art form. The techniques Meatyard used—constructed tableaux, photographic blur, multiple exposure—were unfamiliar. Meatyard, however, was part of a small group of photographers at the time who yearned to be considered artists, picture-makers versus picture-takers.

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“The thought was, ‘The camera didn’t take this picture. I did,’” McDonald says. “Meatyard was really pushing the boundaries of what photographs were expected to be at the time.”

His boundary-pushing tool of choice: unsettling and often grotesque Picasso-like masks, which he used to “non-personalize a person,” ultimately speaking to a universal experience that extended far beyond his own existence in Lexington, Kentucky.

“Though he used people he knew in his photographs, he didn’t want them to just be photographs of his wife, children, or friends,” McDonald says. “So he would purposefully obscure their identities: through masks, through shadows, or often just the way a person was posed. His photographs are not there for you to identify the subject; they are there to create a response in you as a viewer.”

A voracious reader and autodidact, Meatyard often expressed a belief that his photography was more closely aligned with poetry than with any of the visual arts. Perhaps that’s why he found such a wonderful kinship with the writers of the era—a relationship that McDonald used to frame the exhibition.

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At the height of Meatyard’s career in the 1960s and early ’70s, the neighboring University of Kentucky was experiencing an intellectual renaissance of sorts, drawing a community of literary luminaries to campus. Through his involvement in the Lexington Camera Club, Meatyard became a member in this new hub of contemporary thought. In authors like Guy Davenport and Wendell Berry, Meatyard found kindred spirits who understood his propensity for crafting dramas, albeit visual ones.

“He didn’t need to convince writers there was a difference between fiction and nonfiction, journalism and art, a grocery list and a poem,” McDonald says. “Yes, you might use the same words, but the result is a very different thing. The writers saw Meatyard as a similar figure, just with a different set of tools.”

Even after his death in 1972, Meatyard still influenced his writer friends. Increasingly, their works questioned convention and included notes of the absurd. And the assertion that reality was simply something we had created, found prominently in Meatyard’s images, came to the forefront.

That spirit of exchanging ideas carries through the entire exhibition, starting with the partnership between two of UT’s most prestigious collections that brought the show to life.

“This is a great opportunity for our public to gain perspective on a missing art form at the Blanton: photography,” says Simone Wicha, director of the Blanton Museum. “It’s a win-win for both institutions, but more importantly, it’s a win-win for our visitors and our students.”

Photos from top:

Ralph Eugene Meatyard
Occasion for Diriment, 1962
Gelatin silver print,
10 x 8 in.
Guy Davenport Collection, Harry Ransom Center
©The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard

[Guy Davenport], 1965 Gelatin silver print,
7.25 x 7.25 in.
Guy Davenport Collection, Harry Ransom Center
© The Estate of Ralph EugeneMeatyard

Untitled, 1967
Gelatin silvermprint,
7.25 x 7 in.
Guy Davenport Collection, Harry Ransom Center
© The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard

All photos courtesy Guy Davenport Collection, Harry Ransom Center © The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard

 

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