More Real than Real: The Photography of Ralph Eugene Meatyard

Photographs, a ubiquitous component of contemporary life, serve as an ever-evolving record of our lives and those of our friends and family. Children provide an immediate source of inspiration, and many new parents quickly adopt the role of amateur photographer. But few become as skilled and engaged in the medium as Ralph Eugene Meatyard, whose haunting photography is presented in the exhibition Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Dolls and Masks, opening at the de Young this Saturday, October 8.

Untitled, ca. 1960–1962, gelatin silver print, museum purchase, John Pritzker Fund, 2011.4.1

Born in Normal, Illinois, in 1925, Meatyard had an ordinary childhood, which did not signal the artistic turn his adulthood would take. Upon graduating from high school, he joined the Navy and two years later apprenticed himself to an optician. In 1950, he opened his own practice in Lexington, Kentucky, where he and his wife established a home with their three children.

In 1950, when his first son was born, like so many fathers before and after him, Meatyard purchased a camera to document his growing family. The medium and its processes so intrigued him that his work quickly moved beyond the typical family portrait or snapshot.

Meatyard meticulously directed his evocative scenarios, searching out interesting backdrops and employing surprising, even macabre props. Meatyard’s father renovated dilapidated homes, and this early exposure to architectural decay surely influenced his attraction to rundown buildings beset by nature’s inevitable encroachment. Carefully orchestrated down to the last detail, Meatyard made sure that his pictures bore his indelible signature, notably declaring, “I never will make an accidental photograph.”

Untitled, ca. 1962. Gelatin silver print, museum purchase, John Pritzker Fund, 2011.4.3

It would be easy to characterize Meatyard’s photographs as southern gothic or surreal, but his voracious appetite for literature and philosophy, particularly Zen Buddhism, suggests a deeper meaning. Meatyard communicated relationships and emotions by obscuring the identity of his subjects behind masks.

Ambrose Bierce, 1964. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery.

Focusing on childhood and familial relationships, the photographer sought to reveal the emotional reality of universal experiences unencumbered by his subjects’ individuality. For this reason, Meatyard characterized his work as “more real than real.”

Seldom seen and relatively unknown, this photographer generated a resonant body of work created with a singular eye. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to enter into the strange and wonderful world of Ralph Eugene Meatyard!