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Ralph Eugene Meatyard Opens at CCP
Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Romance (N) Ambrose Bierce #2 (detail), 1962; gelatin silver print; © The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard; courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

TUCSON, ARIZONA.-The photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925-1972) defy easy categorization. Meatyard was fascinated by the uncanniness of ordinary life, and made mysterious staged images of his friends and family—often involving masks and abandoned spaces—that are familiar and disturbing at the sa me ti me. Highly original and deeply emotional, Meatyard's expressionist style and use of staged scenes foreshadows the work of many more contemporary artists, such as Francesca Woodman, Cindy Sherman, Greg Crewdson and Sally Mann. “Ralph Eugene Meatyard,” the most comprehensive exhibition of his photographs to date, will open at the Center for Creative Photography (the “Center”), University of Arizona, on Friday, September 23, and remain on view until Monday, January 9, 2006. The selection of over 150 photographs was originally made by Guy Davenport, scholar, poet, and friend of the artist, and appeared at the International Center for Photography in New York. The ICP presentation was organized by Cynthia Young.

Meatyard was an opto metrist by profession who brought out his ca mera on weekends and printed his photographs in a makeshift darkroom at ho me. From his many exposures, he would select only those he considered his best and make just one or two prints of each negative. His strict attention to technique and consistency in print size achieved the aesthetic effect he was seeking — a world seen through a full tonal range from black to white; intentionally strange, yet still familiar and approachable.

From 1953 until his unti mely death in 1972, Ralph Eugene Meatyard explored what he called the “photographic.” His earliest work from the mid-1950s includes a docu mentary project on Georgetown Street, a primarily African A merican neighborhood in Lexington, Kentucky. He then began an experi ment that continued off and on throughout the 1960s into the expressive aspects of the ca mera, using long exposures to record light reflecting off water, extre me focus for his “no-focus” images, and shallow depth of field for his “Zen Twigs” series. By 1960, he was regularly making photographs of his three children in abandoned rural Kentucky mansions and in the forests surrounding them. Highly imaginative and often surrealistic, these photographs evoke a world not normally recognized by everyday attention. They suggest the complex emotions associated with childhood, intimacy, loss, and destruction. These images, which form the largest component of the exhibition, are what Guy Davenport has called “charming short stories that have never been written.”

Visualizing the passage of ti me played an important role for Meatyard in all of his photographs —from long exposures to the growth and maturation of his children, from ti meworn buildings to the shifting light and weather that alters the natural world. For one of his last series, titled “Motion-Sound,” he made pictures by moving the ca mera gently, creating multiple exposures of woodland scenes that suggest visual sound patterns.

Meatyard's engage ment with the subject of people is evident in a number of portraits he made of a circle of local writers with whom he developed great friendships, including Davenport, Thomas Merton, Wendell Berry, Ja mes Baker Hall, and Jonathan Greene. These friends not only provided intellectual inspiration and support, but often acted as collaborators in other projects. Meatyard also made a significant number of self-portraits in many of the sa me settings in which he photographed his friends and family.

About the artist - Meatyard was born in Normal, Illinois in 1925 and moved to Lexington in 1950, after serving in the U.S. Navy and studying at Williams College and Illinois Wesleyan University. He went to work at Tinder-Krauss-Tinder, an optical firm, which also sold ca meras and other photographic equip ment. That sa me year he bought a ca mera to photograph the first of his three children. Meatyard spent the rest of his life in Lexington, where he worked as an optician at his shop (called Eyeglasses of Kentucky) and where he photographed in his spare ti me. His membership in the Lexington Ca mera Club in 1954 led to an enduring friendship with his mentor, Van Deren Coke. In 1956, sum mer workshops at Indiana University brought him in contact with such influential photographers as Henry Hol mes Smith, Aaron Siskind, and Minor White. These interactions paved the way for Meatyard to develop his own photographic vision. Solo and group exhibitions soon followed across the country. His prodigious career ended in 1972 when he died of cancer.

“Ralph Eugene Meatyard” is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with an essay by and interview Guy Davenport, who selected the images for the ICP’s presentation of the show. Davenport (1927-2005) was a poet, artist, illustrator, short-fiction writer, essayist, literary critic, and noted translator. After attending Merton College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, he received a PhD from Harvard University with a thesis on the work of Ezra Pound, and then taught English at several universities, including the University of Kentucky. His work garnered such prizes as the O. Henry Award for short stories, the 1981 Morton Douwen Zabel award for fiction from the A merican Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Leviton-Blu menthal Prize for poetry, and a 1990 MacArthur Fellowship.

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