Tom Eblen

Why the strange masks and dolls? How a Kentucky optician became an art photography icon.

Guy Mendes made this picture of photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard in 1971 wearing his brother’s flight training helmet as two stars from a former Texaco gas station fall off his shoulders. It is part of a new exhibit at the University of Kentucky Art Museum of work by Meatyard and other artists he inspired.
Guy Mendes made this picture of photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard in 1971 wearing his brother’s flight training helmet as two stars from a former Texaco gas station fall off his shoulders. It is part of a new exhibit at the University of Kentucky Art Museum of work by Meatyard and other artists he inspired.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard made eyeglasses for a living at his small shop in Imperial Plaza off Waller Avenue. He was a school PTA president and a Little League coach. But his passion was photography.

Meatyard spent his Saturday afternoons cruising the Kentucky countryside making strange black-and-white photographs in and around abandoned houses. His friends and family would pose wearing masks, holding forlorn dolls or found objects and making odd motions in experiments to blur the image on film.

Meatyard was well-known in art photography circles when he died of cancer in 1972, eight days before his 47th birthday. Since then, his work has become internationally famous. Several Meatyard books have been published, including last year’s “Ralph Eugene Meatyard: American Mystic,” by Stanford University art historian Alexander Nemerov.

In recent years, Meatyard’s work has been exhibited at art museums and prestigious galleries from San Francisco to Paris. The International Center of Photography in New York staged a major retrospective in 2005. But Lexington has never had a big Meatyard show — until now.

“Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Stages for Being” opens Sept. 8 and runs through Dec. 9 at the University of Kentucky Art Museum.

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Untitled, undated photograph. Ralph Eugene Meatyard ©The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery

The museum’s collection has 68 Meatyard prints, most of which have been shown in various contexts. But none of them are in this exhibit, which has 99 photographs from Meatyard’s estate, many of which haven’t been shown before. The exhibit was organized with help from Meatyard’s son, Christoper, and his wife, Diane.

The museum has gone all-out, devoting its entire space in the Singletary Center to Meatyard and his legacy. Because his prints are small— less than eight inches square — they are displayed in the more intimate upstairs gallery, which is usually occupied by the museum’s permanent collection. It has been put in storage for this show.

The large downstairs gallery will house a companion exhibit, “Downstage from Meatyard.” It shows his influence on other artists and writers, including photographers Guy Mendes of Lexington and Roger Ballen of South Africa. A stage has been built for readings, lectures and performances of plays related to or inspired by Meatyard’s photographs.

Museum director Stuart Horodner and curator Janie Welker focused the show on Meatyard’s role as a director of photographs.

Meatyard’s work is more about the feelings photographs evoke than a literal understanding of what is being visually depicted.

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Untitled photograph, 1960. Ralph Eugene Meatyard ©The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery

“For him, masking wasn’t just about the grotesque,” Welker said. “It was about making a photograph not about an individual person but about everyone and looking at those connections between people and the cycles of life. He was looking at what you could do with photography at that time.”

Meatyard was born in Normal, Ill., and moved to Lexington in 1950 to work for opticians Tinder-Krausse-Tinder. A voracious reader, he was curious about everything, including art, history, surrealism, jazz and Zen Buddhism.

He developed his photography by studying with Minor White, as well as with fellow Lexington Camera Club members. They included Robert C. May, who worked at IBM, and Van Deren Coke, who eventually left his family’s hardware business and became a noted photography scholar and museum director in San Francisco and New York.

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Untitled photograph, 1963. Ralph Eugene Meatyard ©The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery

Meatyard’s friends and collaborators included the writers Wendell Berry, Thomas Merton, Guy Davenport, James Baker Hall and Jonathan Williams. He did landscape photographs for Berry’s 1970 book “The Unforseen Wilderness,” which helped save the Red River Gorge from being flooded for a lake. Meatyard’s ashes were later scattered in the gorge.

Mendes was a student journalist at the University of Kentucky in 1967 when he met Meatyard at Berry’s farm in Henry County.

“There’s this man in knickers and a kind of Irish woolen stovepipe hat with a funny camera,” Mendes recalled. “Den Berry, who was probably 7 at the time, took me aside and said, ‘This guy makes really strange pictures.’”

Meatyard would become Mendes’ first photography mentor.

“Up until that point, I thought photographs were representations of the real world,” Mendes said. “Suddenly I realized that they could traffic in metaphor and mystery, that photographs could be like poems or songs. Gene was a master of the strange, sought it out and saw it in places where the rest of us didn’t see it.”

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Guy Mendes made this portrait of Ralph Eugene Meatyard in the doorway of an abandoned house where they were photographing near the end of Meatyard’s life. Guy Mendes

Mendes spent many Saturday afternoons with Meatyard and May on “purposeful meanders” around rural Kentucky looking for abandoned houses in which to stage photographs.

“Gene would say, stand over there and hold this,” Mendes said. “I came to realize that it was a form of play, a way of experimenting. You were looking for something you hadn’t seen before.

“Here I was, this long-haired hippie with these older guys who were basically businessmen during the week,” he added. “I went out with them and I didn’t know what the hell they were looking at. And then when they produced their prints, weeks, months later, I was amazed at what they were seeing. Their adventurousness and their experimental spirit were infectious.”

Mendes’ contribution to the “Downstage from Meatyard” exhibit, titled “Proving Ground,” is a large pinboard with prints of 50 of his pictures taken over 50 years. The three in the center are of Meatyard; the others show his influence.

“Gene set me on a path looking for that which you have never seen,” Mendes said. “I think that for 50 years now I have been searching for Gene Meatyard.”

If you go

“Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Stages for Being”

When: Sept. 8 and runs through Dec. 9. Tues-Thurs, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.; Fri., 10 a.m. - 8 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., noon- 5 p.m.

Where: University of Kentucky Art Museum, 405 Rose Street

More info.: 859-257-5716, https://finearts.uky.edu/art-museum

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