Ralph Eugene Meatyard

On providing feedback on my assignment 5 images, fellow student Sarah-Jane field mentioned photographer Meatyard and his use of masks to me (thanks Sarah-Jane). I had not come across Meatyard before and as I was using a mask in my assignment, I thought it prudent to investigate further.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard was born in Illinois in 1925 and died of cancer at the age of 47 in Lexington, Kentucky. He was an optician by trade and regarded himself as an amateur photographer. One day he walked into a Woolworths store in Lexington and bought a set of latex masks. The Smithsonian Magazine describes the masks as “a marriage of Picasso and a jack-o’-lantern”. Looking at his photos, I personally find the masks rather creepy.

Over the subsequent years he posed family and friends wearing these masks in front of buildings. He even created a fictional narrative, complete with a physical album called The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater along with hand-scrawled captions accompanying the photos,  where all the people featured in the series wear masks. When asked why he used masks, Meatyard stated:

a mask “serves as non-personalizing a person.”

Smithsonian Magazine

© Ralph Eugene Meatyard
© Ralph Eugene Meatyard

The masks serve to create a sense of ambiguity. The viewer is drawn into the rather innocent, yet grotesque scene with puzzlement. In some of his images, the poses are childlike and familial, allowing the viewer to remember his or her own childhood, but the juxtaposition of the gargoyle-like mask upon a seemingly innocent body throws this perception totally off kilter and leaves us wondering who these people are and what their real story is. More tellingly, could they be us? Because we are unable to make a connection to their faces, we go off hunting the backgrounds for more clues. Meatyard has transferred the authorship of the images totally to the viewer.

… the modern scriptor is born simultaneously
with the text, is in no way equipped with a being
preceding or exceeding the writing, is not the subject with
the book as predicate; there is no other time than that of the
enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now.

Roland Barthes, Death of the Author (p. 145)

Yet looking at Meatyard’s images, a certain familiarity resonates with me. It is just as Barthes states in his essay, Death of the Author. We each bring to a reading of an image our own perceptions, culture and value systems. The image above reminds me of scenes I have seen before, namely those of African masks (see below) and more recently in my life, my exposure to First Nations masks as well. Those masks too serve a purpose and hide an identity.

African Masks - Seattle Art Museum
African Masks – Seattle Art Museum
Reference List

Barthes, Roland (1977).  Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana Press

McDermott, Theodore (2011) The Family Albums of Ralph Eugene Meatyard (2006) [online]. American Suburbx. Available from: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/11/ralph-eugene-meatyard-the-family-albums-of-ralph-eugene-meatyard-2006-2.html [Accessed 18 March, 2016]

Zax, David (2011) Ralph Eugene Meatyard: The Man Behind the Masks [online] Smithsonian Magazine. Available from: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/ralph-eugene-meatyard-the-man-behind-the-masks-106625198/ [Accessed 18 March, 2016]

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