New York

Ralph Eugene Meatyard

When Beaumont Newhall compiled the later editions of his canonical History of Photography, he left Ralph Eugene Meatyard out of the picture. Working against an aesthetic orthodoxy that valued naturalism and formal consistency above all else, Meatyard, who died in 1972. at age forty-seven, used the most shameless of contrivances and displayed a reckless willingness to explore the shadowy, subjective side of photography. It is this disregard for “straight” photographic conventions that has made Meatyard’s work relevant to artists as diverse as Cindy Sherman (who cited him as one of only a few photographic influences on her work), Sally Mann, Joel-Peter Witkin, and Barbara Ess, among many others. What was astonishing about this show of vintage prints is how contemporary they look even today.

Meatyard pursued photography as an inquiry rather than an occasion display of mastery, and one of the persistent subjects of that inquiry was the American (Meatyard would have called it “Murcan”) unconscious, in all its gothic goofiness. An image from 1962 shows three kids, wearing monster masks, sitting in nonchalant poses on rough-hewn bleachers. Behind them, on the uppermost tier, another grinning mask rests on a woman’s thighs, her calves seeming to disappear below the steps. The hand-painted numbers on the bleachers rise from at the bottom to 5 at the top. This image shouldn’t work—it’s too obvious a metaphor—but it does. America is a spectator culture, filled with children mimicking the grotesqueries of their elders for public consumption, and the only thing that really matters is the price of your seat.

The tension between the depths (emotional and psychic) plumbed and the utter banality of the things photographed animates much of Meatyard’s best work. Out of ruined interiors, dimestore props, and ordinary people in solitude, he made a memory theater. Meatyard was obsessed, in a way that seems both innocent and tortured, with the unreliability of appearances. Things are often not as they appear to be: a huge glowing magic mushroom is actually a scarred hubcap; an alien with square-cut ears turns out to be just a kid blasted with distorting backlight. Darkness, blur, and lack of focus all serve to upset expectations. Everything is masked or veiled or transformed by light. Photography’s apparent objectivity becomes a perfect mask for his subjective practice.

Children were Meatyard’s preferred models, because of their easy familiarity with both the funny and the terrifying products of the imagination. A boy in a hooded sweatshirt, in a T959 image, leans into a blackened tree stump, his white hands placed delicately on his head and heart—part mendicant, part gangbanger avant la lettre. An untitled picture of ca. 1955–57 shows a shirtless towhead under the word “red,” painted in large white letters on a cinderblock wall, erupting into laughter over the absurdity of language. In a 1962 shot, a naked baby girl lifts her arms in triumph over a disembodied skull-mask on the ground.

Meatyard sets the stage, shows you he sets the stage, and you still get caught up in the drama. Rather than recede decorously into the history of art photography, his brand of abstracted fantasy comes raucously forward into a present it helped to shape.

David Levi Strauss