“Am I looking at a mask or am I the mask being looked at?” —Ralph Eugene Meatyard
On this Fourth of July holiday I’m reminded of the work of Ralph Eugene Meatyard. I’ve always admired him as a great American photographer, one whose time came too soon.
Born in Normal, Illinois in 1925, Meatyard lived a happy Family-man-life: wife, kids, Navy veteran, steady job as an optician, and a suburban home in Kentucky. Before his passing in 1972 (just shy of his 47th birthday) Meatyard had enjoyed great success, having exhibited in important museums and alongside other major-league photographers. He proved then that, despite his “conventional” lifestyle, creating meaningful and resonant work comes from deep within.
The photos of family and friends donning strange masks and his uneasy landscapes have always made me feel a restless tension—one that I must say I enjoy. Not fully grasping how Meatyard is able to capture this disquiet is part of the magic.
Two concurrent exhibitions, one on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and another at Peter Freeman, Inc. in New York attest to the staying power of Meatyard’s work. Often considered ahead of his time, Meatyard’s photographs, while being highly regarded by collectors, have never enjoyed popular posthumous acclaim. But who cares? See the shows and appreciate, first-hand, the work of a unique American photographer who continues to inspire, and to unsettle. —Lane Nevares