Ralph Eugene Meatyard.
Photographs by Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Essay by Guy Davenport.
320 pp., 220 tritone illustrations, 10x12".
Rifling through the pages of this retrospective monograph, one is as likely to encounter theologian and philosopher Thomas Merton or poet Denise Levertov or the writer Wendell Berry as the predictable rubber monster masks of Lucybelle Crater or kids performing obscure tasks in abandoned buildings. This is the central mystery of Ralph Meatyard—devoted father, Kentucky optometrist and American visionary. What was he thinking? What was he like? While he was an avid reader (ranging from William Carlos Williams to Zen texts), and student of painters and photographers (James Ensor, Doisneau, Cartier-Bresson), he was also a conventional family man, who photographed on the weekends and printed his pictures during his annual vacations. He referred to himself as a “primitive photographer,” since he was largely self-taught and worked in a rudimentary darkroom. But this belies the fact that he was mentored by the likes of Van Deren Coke, Henry Holmes Smith and Minor White. Somehow, he managed to inflect the antics of his friends and family in the area around Lexington with a singular hovering spookiness, an uncanny lingering uncertainty straight out of Poe, or a textbook on abnormal psychology. His main tools were his dramatic printing style, motion blur, selective focus, and a collection of dime-store monster masks. Meatyard refused to explain his pictures, although he seems to have been eager to share them with the world. His premature death, just shy of 47, deprived us of a truly original voice, but his work is still making the rounds, still puzzling after all these years. - Phil Harris
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