Life and career
Meatyard was born in Normal, Illinois and raised in the nearby town of Bloomington, Illinois. When he turned 18 during World War II, he joined the Navy, though he did not have the opportunity to serve overseas before the war ended. After being mustered out, he briefly studied Pre-Dentistry, then turned his studies to becoming an optician.
After he and Madelyn McKinney married, they moved to Lexington, Kentucky to continue his trade as an optician, working for Tinder-Krausse-Tinder, a company that also sold photographic equipment. The owners of the company were active members of the Lexington Camera Club, for which the Art Department of the University of Kentucky provided exhibition space.
Meatyard purchased his first camera in 1950 to photograph his newborn first child, and worked primarily with a Rolleiflex medium-format camera subsequently. He took up membership of Lexington Camera club in 1954, and at the same time joined the Photographic Society of America. It was at the Lexington Camera Club that Meatyard met Van Deren Coke, an early influence behind much of his work. Coke exhibited work by Meatyard in an exhibition for the university entitled "Creative Photography" in 1956.
During the mid-1950s, Meatyard attended a series of summer workshops run by Henry Holmes Smith at Indiana University and also with Minor White. White, in particular, fostered Meatyard's interest in Zen Philosophy.
An autodidact and voracious reader (it was said that he read books while driving), Meatyard made work in productive bursts, often leaving his film undeveloped for long stretches, then working feverishly in the makeshift darkroom in his home. "His approach was somewhat improvisational and very heavily influenced by the jazz music of the time." Using his children as props to explore what could be called his prime subject, Meatyard addressed the surreal "masks" of identity and the ephemeral nature of surface matter.
Much of his work was made in abandoned farmhouses in the central Kentucky bluegrass region during family weekend outings and in derelict spaces around Lexington. Some of his earliest camera work was made in the traditionally African-American neighborhood around Lexington's Old Georgetown Street.
Meatyard was a close acquaintance of several well-known writers in the Kentucky literary renaissance of the 1960s and 70's, including his neighbor Guy Davenport, who later helped put together a posthumous edition of his photos. In 1971, the photographer co-authored a book on Kentucky's Red River Gorge, The Unforeseen Wilderness, with writer Wendell Berry. The two frequently traveled into the Appalachian foothills. Berry and Meatyard's book was a major contribution to saving the gorge from destruction by a proposed Army Corps of Engineers dam. Meatyard's ashes were scattered in the gorge after his death.
The photographer also carried on a friendship and short correspondence with the Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton, who resided at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery just west of Bardstown, Kentucky. Merton appeared in a number of Meatyard's experimental photographs (taken on the grounds of the monastery) and the two shared an interest in literature, philosophy, and Eastern and Western spirituality. Meatyard wrote Merton's eulogy in the Kentucky Kernel shortly after the monk's accidental death in Bangkok, Thailand, in December 1968, four years before Meatyard's own early death which "came at the height of the 'photo boom', a period of growth and ferment in photography in the United States that coalesced with the political and social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s." Though Lexington was a relative photographic backwater, Meatyard did not consider himself a "Southern" or regional photographer. His work was just beginning to be recognized nationally at the time of his death.
"Meatyard's work was shown and collected by major museums, published in important art magazines, and regarded by his peers as among the most original and disturbing imagery ever created with a camera. He exhibited with such well-known and diverse photographers as Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Minor White, Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan, Robert Frank, and Eikoh Hosoe. But by the late 1970s, his photographs seemed consigned to appear mainly in exhibitions of 'southern' art. In the last decade, however, thanks in part to European critics, Meatyard's work has reemerged, and the depth of its genius and its contributions to photography have begun to be understood and appreciated. In a sense Meatyard suffered a fate common to artists who are very much of but also very far ahead of their time. Everything about his life and his art ran counter to the usual and expected patterns. He was an optician, happily married, a father of three, president of the Parent-Teacher Association, and coach of a boys' baseball team. He lived in Lexington, Kentucky, far from the urban centers most associated with serious art. His images had nothing to do with the gritty 'street photography' of the east coast or the romantic view camera realism of the west coast. His best known images were populated with dolls and masks, with family, friends and neighbors pictured in abandoned buildings or in ordinary suburban backyards.
"At the same time he often turned from this vernacular focus and, like such photographers as Henry Holmes Smith, Harry Callahan and others, produced highly experimental work. These images include multiple exposures and photographs where, through deliberate camera movement, Meatyard took Fox Talbot's 'pencil of nature' and drew calligraphic images with the sun's reflection on a black void of water. However, where others used these experiments to expand the possibilities of form in photographs, Meatyard consistently applied breakthroughs in formal design to the exploration of ideas and emotions. Finally—and of great importance in the development of his aesthetic—Meatyard created a mode of 'No-Focus' imagery that was distinctly his own. 'No-Focus' images ran entirely counter to any association of camera art with objective realism and opened a new sense of creative freedom in his art."
Meatyard married Madelyn McKinney. They had three children: Michael (born 1950); Melissa; and Christopher (born 1955). Meatyard died of cancer in 1972. He was described as a "bookish Zenmaster [who] also served as president of the local PTA and the Little League and flipped burgers at the Fourth of July party.
- Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Phaidon Press, 2002 ISBN 0-7148-4112-9 pp. 3–10
- Hall, James Baker, ed. Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Emblems & Rites (Millerton, New York: Aperture, 1974) There had already been an earlier book, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, issued in 1970 by the Gnomon Press with an introduction by Wendell Berry and notes by Arnold Gassan.
- Meatyard, Ralph Eugene; & Davenport, Guy (Essay), 2005, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, (Steidl/ICP]
- Ralph Eugene Meatyard Phaidon Press 2002 ISBN 0-7148-4112-9
- Rhem, James; Ralph Eugene Meatyard: The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater and Other Figurative Photographs (Distributed Art Publishers, 2002) 125 pages. Three critical texts, "Lucybelle" with 34 additional previously unpublished Meatyard photographs. ISBN 1-891024-29-9
- Rhem, James (Author); & Meatyard, Ralph Eugene (Photographer), 1999, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Photopoche, No: 87’, (Centre National de Photo)
- Tannenbaum, Barbara (Editor); 1991, Ralph Eugene Meatyard: An American Visionary, Rizzoli.
- Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Phaidon Press, 2002 ISBN 0-7148-4112-9 OCLC:636218389 p. 3
- Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Phaidon Press, 2002 ISBN 0-7148-4112-9 pp. 3-10
- Szarkowski, John; Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960. (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1978) pp.14–15. Szarkowski notes that between 1966 and 1970 "the number of students studying photography or cinematography at the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana) increased from 132 to 4,175 – a growth of over three thousand percent in four years".
- David Zax, The Man Behind the Masks, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2011, p. 12. "Meatyard was a quiet, diffident, charming person on the surface, but he was a known ruse of the American genius."