TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT November 1974

Meatyard

OF LATE, A LONG PERSISTENT INWARD VISION in photographic art has been gaining attention among those who assume the camera works best as a spontaneous witness of the social surfaces around us. If one were to hazard a mere formula to distinguish the two outlooks today, it would have to do with their disparate shading of photographic facts that in themselves resist any narrative alignment. One tendency, the dominant, is to let the material be itself, and yet to operate with a special, selective congruence to it that must allow for a current of open-ended meanings. André Kertész, Robert Frank, and Lee Friedlander are photographers who have angled for scattered, evocative stoppages of action within an otherwise apparently faceless traffic. The other inclination is to make overt enigmas of these phenomena, to eke from them nuances of a world consistently other than our own, or askew from it. Artists of this sensibility put disquieting questions to our navigational findings in the world. One need only think of the very different practitioners Clarence Laughlin and Duane Michals, extraordinary inventors both, and of the figure who concerns me here––Meatyard, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, an optician who called his shop “The Eyeglasses of Kentucky,” and who died of cancer in Lexington, 1972.

In this artist’s photographs, images seem perenially to emerge from or fall into darkness, even though the circumstances are obviously daylit or evenly overcast. How it has come to pass that omnivorous shadow has found so much room to obscure or turn away whole regions from a normal outdoors luminosity, we do not know. This darkness collects under the eaves and porches of old houses; it clots preternaturally around bushes and shambled twigs. Figures are to be perceived reclining in it, nestling there like toadstools protected in a humid place. This is not the dry sol y sombre of Manuel Alvarez Bravo, whose tropic contrasts have a Manichean symbolism. One senses it, rather, as a thick, permeable, and nutrient zone, favorable to decay or noxious growth––Gothic, finally. Such is the recreated environment within which Meatyard’s subjects, the greater part of them children, play games.

It should be said at once that these children, who wear sneakers, glasses, and tee shirts, are up to nothing particularly ordinary. Even when they take their ease, it is as if distracted, in a break between rituals whose self-possession always excludes outsiders. Posing for their portrait, they hunch in caverns or attics, between close saplings, narrow corridors. Frequently they wear Halloween masks. From time to time, someone drops off a roof or suddenly turns his or her head. The scene is fibrous and rank, rural, perhaps backwoods. Time has peeled from walls many old coats of paint while wind has strewn pebbles, roots, and dust over the floors. Meatyard had a penchant for stuffing people off in an odd corner or jiggling the camera, so that nature itself seems to have jumped, been given a shock. The collection of his photos seen in a new Aperture monograph (edited by James Baker Hall), gives the impression of a still-life artist whose subjects unaccountably take off in slow, slight ways.

Yet with its literary overtones, this photography is portentous enough. It’s remarkable far more than a man should want a camera to evoke them or bear their burden than that they do not succeed in externalizing psychic states. Despite the best will in the world, this he most emphatically does not do, although the photographer’s poet and fictioneering friends have battened down upon his life and work as if it were a natural extension of their own working fancies. At their worst, there is a crypto-illustrationalism about these prepared images, for they make their way on the basis of exceptional or incongruous props, all the more inert because they were meant to carry a symbolic load. So, one finds a mannequin’s hand held by a man whose right arm is fitted with a pincer grip. Another example: the battered glove whose surface has broken in places like a hardboiled egg’s. Certainly the artist wanted to see these things as and where they are. But they operate as “idea” images telegraphing a pathos that can just as graphically be conveyed by words. Still, ideas may waver. A photo of a bundled-up girl and a suspended pickaxe, seen against Baroque floral wallpaper, succeeds, not because the images fly efficiently apart in meaning, but because they are revealed to us by alarming shadows impossible to describe.

Some comparable alarm was probably intended in the family-album-type photos on the Lucybelle Crater theme (Jargon Press, 1974), where every person, young and old, kibbitzes on the suburban-looking street or backyard––everything normal except that he or she wears a fright mask. Obviously no occasion suggested this pleasantry other than a conceit of the artist. But it is a crazy, naive series, whose rigid dissonance is not alleviated by the evident pictorial sophistication of the photographer. Rather than putting some interesting stress on my notion that I know pretty much who my neighbors are (purely conjectural), this masquerade, with its appalling constancy, offends my ideas of the human and social variables that do surround us.

The more or less documentary photographer runs continuous risks which a characteristic rapid-fire or lying-in-wait technique may not lessen: split-second misses, botched angles of view, suddenly “wrong” emphases. Such a photographer often works most decisively after he has shot his fill, selecting from the rolls that may have been exposed, the one or few more configurations that do not look trivial. For it is an approach, occupationally speaking, that begets trivial incident . . . with unstaunchable frequency. The fantasist photographer, on the other hand, will see to it, beforehand, that no essential accidents occur. Enough care goes into his scenario as to amount, almost, to the reconstruction of a crime. But the often startling results can find no alibi in the world of unself-conscious behavior or real happening. This kind of homeless narrative goads us to require more cause and effect information from the print than it will ever furnish. Deprived of its historical base, the fantasy photograph chronically exudes an illicit importance. Meatyard does not give us to suppose that some activity is occurring other than the one we see; but we are thrown fairly much in the dark as to what that activity is. And this occurs because the doings of the people he photographs are doubly removed from our understanding. Neither meaningful to their agents nor invented by the photographer, the exchanges between his subjects exist only as suggestions, possibilities of human comportment hovering in a wispy state, no matter how concrete the images. Such are his jumpers, “wing flappers,” convalescents, and other melancholiacs (some of whom are literally boxed in). They appear to be a somnambulistic, yet expectant condition, to which we are given privileged access.

But it would be to err greatly to imagine this access that of a voyeur. Being invisible or unknown to the actors in a scene, the voyeur has no reason to doubt the authenticity of their purposes. But the intimations in a Meatyard photo hypothesize themselves, consonant with this aim of drawing out from us an appropriate, though never natural credulity. Being a temporal as well as a visual medium, a film can assure this credulity because it tells a story through acting––that is, everyone pretending to be awake and running on their own. Meatyard’s people are not permitted to act (try doing something with a script at one sixtieth of a second), nor are they allowed to be themselves. They are creatures in a genre that aspires to be a mode of discourse––and they are, by consequence, unclear presences––unclear that is, as to their psychological status quite before they can become ambiguous as symbolic types. Indeed, were we to accept this ambiguity as a matter of course, the mode would have accomplished itself––something I do not think has happened.

No, the wonders of his photography lie elsewhere. I think I could point in each relevant example to their source, but I can do little enough to analyze it. This much is certain: something has moved, and with that motion, the scene in part liquifies. With Meatyard’s every delicate blur, a material form comes undone and is shaken loose from its armature.

Sometimes, when I am taking a photo, I can, if I hurry, go and stand in front of the camera after taking the cover off the lens and in that way make a photo of myself––I have to race back and put the cork back on. The idea is not bad, I think, but the result . . . I’m always half transparent, like a ghost . . . Like a ghost! Zizzou said: "All we have to do is dress like a ghost and we’ll have a photo of a ghost, a real ghost . . . !”

Lartigue is remembering the photographic hilarities of his childhood that, once passed, took with it an interest in the supernatural. For the remainder of his career, movement would be one of his prime fascinations––but movement as it now conveys the exhilarated speed and grace of the human body taking delight in its own freedom. Meatyard plays his cards much closer in. In order that one deadly tremor take its bite from the density of things, they must be quiet, and by and large, unsuspecting. That mini-instant that subtracts some otherwise nominal placement is passionately concerted. It has about it the mean accuracy of a mantis or a snake. In broad daylight, a naked man, standing next to a toilet, suffers the vaporization of his left leg, quite aside from the hazier equivocation of his overall sex. That leg has ceased to be itself and has turned into a cylindrical shaft of light. There is no putting on of coy airs, no extraneous trash here from the antique shop or thrift store. The very simplicity of this photo blazes away at us––a vision of spooky evanescence that could be certified by no other medium.

Who would doubt that the man moved his leg on instructions, and who would really care about it? For the frightening effect is entirely visual, and it is as if actuality existed for the artist, at his best, as a reservoir for the partial, shimmering dissolution of its aspects. Clearly it will not do to describe this phenomenon in magical terms, anymore than we would account magically for the effect created by someone’s having moved in and out of a very long exposure. Yet, what had originally appeared in the 19th century as a flawed immobility (with amusing possibilities), reemerges as an expressive quickening. And the beauty of it consists in its apparent restoration of “free will” to the visual object and a regained territoriality for its action. If a literary bent made this quickening possible, found a more concise embodiment for itself, so much the better. On face value, we are dealing with nothing more than a banal event––an impatient or restless trifle––made precious. Through the artist’s range finder the fugitive, softening glaze over a boy’s features would have been invisible to the naked eye. But the camera brings it back as only a camera could––and lays waste to our rationalized view of the world.

Three figures, three shadows, are dashing out of a glade, though only one of them looks human. I glimpse a smear of his plaid bermuda shorts. But the mottled patches of light and dark, sun speckled foliage and grass, eat away at everything and even seem to be on the move through the activity of the subjects. Less than a second later, on that presumably summer day of 1962, Meatyard took another shot of the episode, showing about a further yard or two traversed in three directions. Not incidentally, heads do seem to have wandered off their necks. It so happens that Muybridge devoted almost a whole career to comparable phenomena, the purpose being to investigate animal and human locomotion. But Muybridge’s object was to ascertain positions step by step and tally the muscles that grimace, while Meatyard effortlessly obscures all this. The Californian wanted motion to be shown by means of the camera, and there is an implacable obsession in its analysis. Nothing could have been further from Muybridge’s aim than Meatyard’s hope that everything should happen “through” the camera, making it seem that the device had a pictorial will of its own. Yet the countless, heavy footballs of Muybridge and their lightsome dematerialization in Meatyard are both dizzy prospects.

As I look again at these two Meatyard photos, a hunch comes to me that may be an illusion. It is as if I am seeing not what appeared to him in nature (surely very boring at that instant), but what he foresaw the instrument would do to nature; he had the lie imprinted ahead of time in his mind. He seems to me at his most exquisite and ecstatic when gripped by this mental anticipation. Put another way, he grasped innately what Laughlin referred to as the space that exists visually (only in the photograph), but not physically in the world. Even the superfluously dangled cinderblocks in the shot of the running figures do not rescind that visual ecstasy. The evidence it yields will not further anyone’s case in a court of law, but, humbly, it will not be fictionalized in an invented, self-irradiated space, either. I can think of no other artistic mode that parallels the fluid and vital ties between photography’s first sun-struck moments and its latest incarnations. But then, in what other art does one find that relentless and often successful protest against the fading of events and faces from our memory? And because it is just as often inexplicably frustrated in the picturing of them, it nourishes an asset whose value has to be relearned again, each time it makes its appearance.

––Max Kozloff