Tom Eblen

Meet the Lexington shutterbugs who became world-famous art photographers

Untitled 1973 photograph by James Baker Hall that is part of the "Kentucky Renaissance" exhibit at the Cincinnati Art Museum.
Untitled 1973 photograph by James Baker Hall that is part of the "Kentucky Renaissance" exhibit at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Cincinnati Art Museum

I was 9 years old in 1967 when I developed an intestinal ulcer and had to make several visits to Dr. Zygmunt Gierlach, a radiologist whose office was at Doctor’s Park on Nicholasville Road.

What I remember most, aside from the doctor’s good humor, were the unusual photographs on his waiting room walls. I had never seen anything like them.

Gierlach was a member of the Lexington Camera Club, and his waiting room served as a club gallery. Only decades later would I discover this was not the work of ordinary shutterbugs.

Some of those photographs now hang in prestigious art museums and sell in galleries for thousands of dollars. Two club leaders, Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Van Deren Coke, are still icons of art photography decades after their deaths.

The Cincinnati Art Museum last week opened a major exhibit, “Kentucky Renaissance: The Lexington Camera Club and Its Community, 1954-1974.” It includes 150 photographs by Meatyard, Coke, Gierlach, James Baker Hall and their fellow club members and artistic friends. More info:

Yale University Press has published the exhibit catalog as a hardcover book of the same name (275 pages, $45), with essays about the club and its significance by Brian Sholis, the museum’s photography curator, and author John Jeremiah Sullivan.

Sholis’ essay focuses on the irony of what I saw as a young ulcer patient: Here was a group of amateur photographers creating something special in a place far removed from New York, Los Angeles and other acknowledged centers of the fine arts world.

The Lexington Camera Club was founded in 1936, but its heyday began in the 1950s with Coke’s leadership. It was unlike most camera clubs of the era in that its members did not try to follow any prescribed philosophies or techniques.

“There was an understanding of photography as an individual, creative, expressive act,” Sholis said in an interview. “It was not just something documenting the world around you.”

Coke, the president of his family’s Van Deren Hardware Co., was a man of means whose passion for photography led him to travel and meet pioneers such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston and bring their ideas back to Lexington. Coke eventually left the hardware business and Lexington for graduate school and a distinguished career as a museum curator. He died in New Mexico in 2004.

Coke’s protégé was Meatyard, an optician who would become the club’s next artistic leader and most famous member. Like Coke, he was a mentor to other club members, which Sholis thinks is why this group became so artistically successful.

A popular myth is that artists must be loners working in isolation. But Sholis thinks these photographers excelled in part because of their collaboration with each other and a diverse group of artistic friends who happened to be in Kentucky at the time.

Those friends included Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk and best-selling author who also was a photographer; writers Wendell Berry and Guy Davenport; printmakers Victor and Carolyn Hammer; folksinger John Jacob Niles and others. The Cincinnati exhibit includes some Merton photographs and other collaborators’ books, music, printed material and ephemera.

Meatyard died of cancer at age 46 in 1972. Within two years, the Lexington Camera Club had disbanded. Guy Mendes, a well-known Lexington photographer and filmmaker, was at the time one of its youngest members.

The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky, which thanks to club member Robert C. May has an extensive collection of these photographers’ work, included some of it in a major 2014 photography exhibit. During that show, James Birchfield, the retired UK Special Collections curator of rare books, gave a lecture that inspired Mendes and a few other local photographers, including me, to reconstitute the club. Since then, the group has met monthly and had two gallery shows.

The “new” Lexington Camera Club is a group of both professional and amateur photographers whose interests run the gamut from the documentary to the abstract work. Mendes has sought to continue the original club’s spirit of individuality and collaboration that allowed those earlier photographers to break new artistic ground in what many “experts” would have considered an unlikely place.

“That was something Van Coke tried to emphasize repeatedly,” Sholis said. “You don’t have to go somewhere fantastic to make a fantastic picture.”