“Every profound spirit needs a mask…”

by Kim Steele

More Real than Real: The Photography of

Ralph Eugene Meatyard

at the de Young Museum, San Francisco

October 2011

 

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Untitled, ca. 1962, gelatin silver print, http://deyoung.famsf.org, museum purchase, John Pritzker Fund, 2011.4.3. © The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard

 

 

“Every profound spirit needs a mask,” a quotation by Nietzsche found in one of Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s many journals.  Trained and occupied as an optician, Meatyard began photographing his family as a hobby.  Mentored by the great Van Deren Coke, with whom I also studied at the University of New Mexico, he gained the vision and direction that created a unique body of work.  Shot mostly in his own back yard, and nearby his home, Meatyard created the imagery that was intended to contradict the ‘snapshot’ nature of the composition.

 

The gorgeously executed silver prints, peer out of darkness and pools of bright light.  The mystery  oozes from the images, often of his children shrouded in grotesque masks, that waver between horrifying and playful.  Adding to the surreal quality are partially dismembered doll bodies, reminiscent of Hans Bellmer.  He was quoted as stating that the “dolls add a feeling of humanness” to the images.

 

 

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Untitled, ca. 1962, gelatin silver print, http://deyoung.famsf.org, museum purchase, John Pritzker Fund, 2011.4.3. © The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard

 

 

The vacillation between alienation and romance, creates the dichotomous nature of Meatyards work. “However, I work in the Romantic Surrealist as well,” explains Meatyard of his inscrutable photographs.  He also claims that, “an educated background of Zen influences all my photos.”  The tableaus that he created often puzzle the viewer as to what is going on here?  Early in his career, James Hall wrote a review in Popular Photography that characterizes his work as both, “alienating and redemptive,” and “monstrousness and innocent.”

 

A friend and inspiration for Meatyard, noted writer, Ambrose Bierce, in his book, The Devil’s Dictionary, defends this romance as, “fiction that knows no allegiance to God of Things as They Are.”

 

Preferring to shoot in late afternoon with raking light and deep shadows, Meatyard  presents a suggestion of universal archetypes, by composing his family of characters in banal locations, he strives to avoid the familiar and familial.

 

 

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Untitled, ca. 1962, gelatin silver print, http://deyoung.famsf.org, museum purchase, John Pritzker Fund, 2011.4.3. © The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard

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