DECEMBER 2006/JANUARY 2007
THEODORE MCDERMOTT

THE FAMILY ALBUMS OF RALPH EUGENE MEATYARD

SEEKING A SOLUTION TO THE GREAT COMPLEXITIES OF RALPH EUGENE MEATYARD’S PHOTOGRAPHS BY VISITING EVERY HOUSE HE EVER LIVED IN, NOT FINDING THE SOLUTION, AND REALIZING THAT THIS IS THE VERY REASON WHY HIS WORK IS SO GOOD

DISCUSSED: Vernacular Photography, Normal, Dilapidation, Opticians, Suburban Street Names, William Eggleston, Adlai Stevenson, Cassius Clay, Jonathan Williams, Lucybelle Crater, James Rhem, Guy Davenport

Photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, who was born in Normal, Illinois, in 1925 and died of cancer in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1972, worked his entire adult life as an optician, making lenses for glasses. Though he took and developed thousands of pictures, only a sampling of his work has been published. A slim Phaidon 55’s selection appeared in 2002; Ralph Eugene Meatyard, compiled by writer and critic Guy Davenport in 2004, attempts a fuller account of his entire oeuvre; and, finally, Meatyard’s own The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater, first published in 1974, is a fictional photo album of people wearing costume-shop masks. Meatyard took all of his photographs in and around Lexington, where he moved in 1950 and stayed until his death. In the essay that precedes the photographs in Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Davenport reveals that Meatyard bought his first camera at the age of twenty-five to photograph his first child. But even Davenport, a close friend of Meatyard’s, admits to knowing little of Meatyard’s life before he moved to Kentucky: “There was nothing behind him, nothing at all that one could make out.”

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In a letter to Jonathan Williams, the original publisher of The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater, Meatyard wrote:

Billboards in any art are the first things that one sees—the masks might be interpreted as billboards. Once you get past the billboard then you can see into the past (forest, etc.), the present, & the future. I feel that because of the “strange” that more attention is paid to backgrounds & that has been the essence of my photography forever.

To a striking degree, houses are in the background of Meatyard’s photographs. Over and over again, houses, either rundown or propped up in middle-class order, stand behind the oddly posed or out-of-focus or masked figures in the foreground. Nearly every photograph in The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater is taken in, or outside of, a house, often Meatyard’s own. And, as critic James Rhem labors to point out in an excellent essay included at the beginning of the Distributed Arts Publishers edition, even when they do not explicitly feature houses, they were often taken just outside them. Davenport and the curators of a landmark 2004 and 2005 show at the International Center of Photography invented the term Romances to refer to these and other Meatyard photographs in which props and masks and awkward poses are employed to transform the “everyday nature of a family photograph into an unexpected moment.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Theodore McDermott grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, and, until recently, lived in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois. He writes stories, works on a novel, and plays in the band Dogleg.

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