Ralph Eugene Meatyard
(Normal, Illinois, 1925 - 1972, Lexington, Kentucky)
Ralph Eugene Meatyard is best known for his photographs that examine the bizarre and mysterious realms that exist within our everyday world. His enigmatic images illustrate a realm of disturbing and unsettling intimacy, creating scenes of haunting ghostly figures and children wearing monstrous masks.
Meatyard was born, ironically, in Normal, Illinois. After graduating from Illinois State University high school, he entered the Navy, and, as part of the Navy’s program, attended Williams College in a pre-dentistry program. Following the war, he married Madelyn McKinney and apprenticed as an optician in Chicago. After the birth of his first son in 1950, Meatyard attended a semester at Illinois Wesleyan University, where he took a number of philosophy courses, but left school to work for an optical firm in Lexington, Kentucky.
Meatyard’s ordinary life was changed when he purchased his first camera in 1950 to photograph his newborn son. As an optician, he had a keen understanding of the nature of lenses and sight. Influenced by contemporary painting, Zen philosophy, avant-garde literature and the history of photography, Meatyard became a serious amateur photographer producing diverse bodies of work. In 1954 he joined both the Photographic Society of America and the Lexington Camera Club. The club’s leader, photographer and art historian Van Deren Coke, became a mentor to Meatyard, teaching him about technique and the formal structure of photography. In 1956, in an exhibition curated by Coke, Meatyard’s photographs were shown alongside those of Ansel Adams, Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan.
During his short life, Meatyard assembled a sizable inventory of work which illustrated his fascination with questions of identity, deterioration and death, his appreciation for Zen philosophy evident in his soft focus photographs of nature, and his strange ability to challenge the normal.