grotesque domestic: the romances of ralph eugene meatyard
Updated: Feb 28, 2020
the zen-smitten photographer deserves your full attention
Even his name feels made-up, something you’d hear a child babble to herself – leaf, road; oak, man; meat, yard. His photographs slide from the disturbing to the documentary. Maybe disturbing isn’t the right word. They’re just plain strange. Each photo is a coy double-take on something seen sideways. People become carnival masks, abandoned houses become aquariums for ghosts. Even the tiniest twigs embody Zen philosophy. Meatyard’s pleasurably disorienting photographs moonwalk between dreams with the ease of a shutterclick.
Only now is his work coming to the foreground. Born in 1925, he enlisted in the Navy during World War II. The next scattering of years saw him bounce from Indiana to Kentucky, from Williams College to an optometry apprenticeship, where he landed with his wife at a Lexington optical firm. He devoured every book he touched. According to his friends, Meatyard drove with one hand on the wheel and the other hand clutching a paperback. At his job he spent all day handling and polishing lenses, where he became obsessed with perspective and focus. In 1950, he bought his first camera to photograph his firstborn son.
The next two decades connected Meatyard to a thriving network of sideways thinkers. 60’s Kentucky happened to be stuffed with critics and creatives. A given weekend might’ve seen Meatyard roadtrip with the essayist Guy Davenport to the backwoods Abbey of Gethsemani, where they would find the Catholic hermit Thomas Merton deep in conversation with the poet Denise Levertov. Meatyard joined the Lexington Camera Club where he met the photographer Van Deren Coke. Impressed with Meatyard’s avant-garde playfulness, Coke introduced him to Modernist painting and the Zen of DT Suzuki.
They became lifelong influences on his photography. Meatyard played with long exposures, placing a moving subject against a static background, which allowed him to populate abandoned homes and winter forests with the quicksilver wraiths of his children. Zen Twigs filled rolls of film with photographs of tree branches. The twigs hazily dream about in the background before they jag into one paper-thin focal slice.
The series No-Focus and Motion-Sound layered multiple exposures into one photograph, the first producing hypnagogic swells of pure light, the second making buildings and people jitter like they’d had three too many espressos. The idiomatic of Zen Twigs transforms into the aesthetic reduction of No-Focus. Motion-Sound compresses three senses into one square of film. At his most rigorous, Meatyard’s subject is perception itself – but even here there’s a looseness, a half-smile behind the photos. One of his portraits of Thomas Merton portrays the smirking monk drumming on a set of bongos, his hands a silver blur.
His last and most famous collection, The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater, portrays Meatyard’s friends and family in dollar-store Halloween masks. The name “Lucybelle Crater” comes from a Flannery O’Connor story. The photos feature Crater and a revolving cast of brothers, neighbors, and friends. Crater wears a mask with bulging eyebrows and a potato-sized nose. Her friends sport rubber masks that look like they’re melting off their faces. They recline in the grass in front of old cars, lean on fence posts, and peek out from tall bushes. Like O’Connor’s domestic grotesques, The Family Album is only unsettling on first glance. It becomes delightfully odd after three or four photos. Meatyard’s captions undercut Crater’s bewildering world. One photo introduces a masked friend named Jargon. In another photo, Crater introduces the viewer to her “bearded, short in-law’s youngest daughter.” Meatyard’s friends and family dissolve into Crater’s world. Even his children take on new identities. They become everyone at once, melting into the silver-tinted ground below their feet. It’s easy to forget that they took the masks off and piled back into the photographer’s car.
Meatyard’s work takes place in a world where everything is just off-kilter. If they were the pictures in an atlas, they’d be the pictures of places with negative zipcodes. Somewhere you’d take a child if you were comfortable with them playing hopscotch on the neighbor’s ceiling.
Samuel Gee is a student at UNC Chapel Hill.