In 1950s America there were neither likely nor logical paths for a photographer. Family man, optician, photographer and avid reader, Ralph Eugene Meatyard found himself in the midst of a cultural and philosophical movement in Lexington, Kentucky, which at that time included such figures as Thomas Merton, Wendell Berry and Guy Davenport. Through the camera, Meatyard explored and created a fantasy world of dolls and masks, where his family members played the central roles on an ever-changing stage. His monograph, The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater, published posthumously in 1974, recorded his wife and family posed in various disquieting settings, wearing masks and holding dolls and evoking a penetrating emotional and psychological landscape. The book won his work critical acclaim and has been hugely influential in the intervening decades.
Dolls and Masks opens the doors on the decade of rich experimentation that immediately preceded the production of his final opus, The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater. Published to coincide with an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, this handsome book presents 55 mostly unseen works from the Meatyard Archive. Essays by writer and historian Eugenia Parry and curator Elizabeth Siegel greatly expand our understanding of Meatyard’s elusive and captivating genius and set the stage for a foray into this unknown work of one of the century’s most intriguing photographers.
Ralph Eugene Meatyard (American, 1925–1972) attended Williams College as part of the Navy’s V12 program in World War II. Following the war, he married, became a licensed optician, and moved to Lexington, Kentucky. When the first of his three children was born, Meatyard bought a camera to make pictures of the baby. Photography quickly became a consuming interest. He joined the Lexington Camera Club, where he met Van Deren Coke, under whose encouragement he soon developed into a powerfully original photographer. Meatyard used still images to record things most often reserved for moving images, such as the motion on subjects in an otherwise solid setting, scenes part sharp and out-of-focus, children and others sometimes masked, in seemingly normal, yet oddly disquieting, situations. His photographs create a world of mystery and one concerned with the ineffability of reality. Meatyard’s work is housed at the Museum of Modern Art, George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, Smithsonian Institution and many other important collections.