Ralph Eugene Meatyard

27th October 2021

Meatyard is one of those photographers who produces images that I love, yet hate. They make me cringe but yet at the same time they intrigue me and I spend quite a lot of time studying them trying to think about the thoughts behind them.

I am not sure why they hold my gaze and interest for so long. Maybe because Meatyard did not leave a vast amount of clues to the hidden meaning of the symbolism in his work so there is much for me to imagine and decipher from my own interpretation on the content and the meaning behind the grotesque masks.

By responding to the visual stimuli without any previous knowledge of Meatyard or his work, my initial reactions of intimidation, aversion and curiosity led me to come to my own conclusions about the visual meaning.

Although I have researched his use of masks in his work there is no definite answers that I can find as to why he used them in the way he did. Many of the writings of curators, writers and bloggers, have stated that,

Meatyard’s photography was not accidental or documentary, but rather deliberate, often staged, and searching for inner truths rather than ephemeral surfaces… He used masks to universalize his sitters rather than make portraits of individuals. Masks reflect the faces we all put on for the camera.

Art Institute Chicago (2011)
Fig. 1 Meatyard, R. E. (n.d.) Untitled

Although the quote above, ‘Masks reflect the faces we all put on for the camera’, is correct in the sense that once we are in front of the camera for a ‘staged’ portrait photograph, we all choose to act for that one specific moment that the shutter captures us. Whether we want to look our best, smile, not smile, pull faces or whatever way that we wish the camera to capture us, we are play acting, the true us is indeed behind a mask.

However, for me, when I contemplate the concept of Meatyard, the masks that he has his sitters wear are grotesque. Then I have to ask, ‘Why a grotesque mask which intrigues people into thought, yet does not symbolise anything to do with the various sitters that he uses?’

In this instance, I come to the conclusion that Meatyards masks are protecting those that are hiding behind them. Purposefully posing for the camera which is staged means that the viewer to portrait relationship has been blocked, for how can one form a relationship with a mask that sends messages of foreboding and raises more questions than answers, especially as Meatyard spoke little of his intentions about the content or his concept.

Fig. 2 Meatyard, R. E. (1970-1972) Untitled

If we look at the above image there is a figure of a child with an adult women. The older figure could be the child’s mother, nan or older sister. The setting is in a garden with the washing line and clothes separating them from each other, a barrier, with the mask separating them yet further. We the viewer are unable to form any type of relationship with the people behind the mask or indeed the person that they become with the mask.

But isn’t this true of all those that wear masks? It separates the wearer from the real world and those that are viewing them from within it. Their identities are lost and a false one portrayed in its place?

His work was celebrated while he was alive, especially among his peers, but it fell into obscurity for 25 years. In the 21st century, however, Meatyard’s oeuvre resurfaced and was reexamined, especially within the context of work by contemporary photographers interested in identity and illusion, such as Cindy Sherman, and staged tableaux, such as Gregory Crewdson and Emmet Gowin.

Blumberg, N. (2021)

In conclusion I have enjoyed looking through Meatyard’s mask photography and projects, they are indeed intriguing and in fact they are images that I can keep going back to due to their mystique.

The above quote taken from Britannica.com’s article on Meatyard has helped me find other photographers that are ‘interested in identity and illusion.’ Cindy Sherman was already on my list to include in the research for Assignment 5 as I have a couple of her books which, like Meatyard’s images many of which ‘freak me out.’

Illustrations

Fig. 1 Meatyard, R. E. (n.d.) Untitled [Photograph] At: https://americansuburbx.com/2010/08/meatyard-james-rhem.html (Accessed 28.10.21)

Fig. 2 Meatyard, R. E. (1970-1972) Untitled [Photograph] At: https://fraenkelgallery.com/portfolios/artist/meatyard-ralph-eugene#meatyard-ralph-eugene_TheFamilyAlbumofLucybelleCrater-5 (Accessed 29.10.21)

Bibliography

Websites

Art Institute Chicago (2011) Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Dolls and Masks (exhibition). At: https://www.artic.edu/exhibitions/1349/ralph-eugene-meatyard-dolls-and-masks (Accessed 27.10.21)

Blumberg, N. (2021) Ralph Eugene Meatyard: American photographer and optician. At: https://www.britannica.com/science/optometry (Accessed 29.10.21)


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