Children, however beautiful or charming, are alien beings, especially to their parents, for whom close proximity renders their offspring’s irreducible otherness unmistakable. The photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard understood this. His three children (two boys and a girl) were among his favorite models. In the 1950s and ’60s, he liked to drive with them around his home city of Lexington, Kentucky, stopping his car beside an abandoned Southern Gothic mansion, and photographing them lost in thought between the weeds and peeling walls.
He had a feeling for crumbling and forgotten places, for the abject corners of the American experience. (A rare self-portrait shows him crawling through a doorway covered in torn wallpaper, after something that looks like trash.) The children, set loose amid these ruined spaces, appear at once themselves and allegories of a forlorn and knowing innocence, born into a haunted world.
“Ralph Eugene Meatyard,” the first comprehensive survey of his work in New York, organized by ICP assistant curator Cynthia Young, includes 150 vintage prints chosen by Guy Davenport, a distinguished writer and the photographer’s close associate. It suffers from the obligation to present the full range of his endeavors. Early on in his career, Meatyard pursued a rarified version of the social-documentary tradition; throughout, he experimented with abstraction, photographing water or light in motion, and taking pictures without focus, so that his subjects are just barely discernible. Some rather dull photographs of twigs were inspired by his study of Zen Buddhism.
But the heart of his achievement (and this show) lies in what the curators here have called his “Romances”—images of children and adults, sometimes bearing props, such as a grotesque mask, a broken doll, or an American flag. They pose on weather-beaten porches, in shadowy attics and neglected front yards, their body language (at times blurry from long exposures) obliquely hinting at fragmentary narratives. Meatyard was, above all, a poet of what remains unexpressed and unknowable between human beings, the mysteries of biology, emotion, and destiny that link and divide us. If he were a writer (like Flannery O’Connor, whom he admired), his medium would have been the short story, a world telescoped into the relationship between a few characters and a given location.
There was little in his early biography to prophesy such future greatness. Meatyard was born in Normal, Illinois, in 1925, served in the navy, married Madelyn McKinney, attended college on the G.I. Bill, and moved to Lexington in 1950 to take up work as an optician. He bought his first camera when his son Michael was born that same year. Getting serious about pictures, he studied with the photographer Van Deren Coke and took courses with Minor White and Aaron Siskind.
In Lexington, he found a community of writers and like-minded souls, including the poet and Trappist monk Thomas Merton and the writer-environmentalist Wendell Berry, whom he also photographed during three-hour conversations over bread, wine, and cheese. (The show at ICP includes his portraits of these and other far-flung, unlikely American bohemians, as well as a haunting series of final self-portraits that show him laboriously climbing a hillside in winter.) He continued grinding lenses until his death from cancer in 1972.
What would it have been like to see the world through Meatyard’s glasses? Nobody’s family album looked quite like his. Consider the picture of Madelyn Meatyard posing in the doorway of a marble mausoleum covered in bare vines; before her, at the tomb’s wrought-iron gate, stands five-year-old Michael, hand on his hip, eyes cast down, and legs akimbo in his space boots. Though unidentified, she can only be his mother, but instead of cozy sentiment, Meatyard gives us something at once infinitely more beautiful and vaguely sinister: a distance animated by the discomfort that attends the thought of one generation surviving another, as if the mother were already a figment of the boy’s memory, receding into the past’s embrace.
A young boy faces us from the sill of a worn wooden house; his elder brother stands in the foreground, knees disappearing in the yard’s tall grasses. The first will grow into a version of the second, who has already left his baby brother far behind. And one day when they’re both adults, this moment too will be covered in oblivion, except for the photograph, floating up from some primeval well of childhood.
In one of his last projects, “The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater,” Meatyard came closest to developing a slyly homegrown brand of American surrealism. In these pictures, his wife and one other person, wearing haggard masks, pose on gracious suburban streets or in backyards as if for casual snapshots of family and friends, creating images at once familiar and unutterably strange. Here we are, the photographs seem to say, warts and all, our love mingled with grotesquerie. Aren’t we just like you?