How to explain my enduring attachment to the peculiar and eccentric photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard? Could it be that I came across them early in my study of photography and art, so that they are embedded in the foundation of knowledge that was built upon over a lifetime? Maybe I associate them with the period of time when I was learning darkroom techniques, experiencing the magic of seeing a print appear on a blank page. Was it because his surname was so great? Ultimately, it has to do with the lasting impression of the photographs themselves.
In The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater, on view at DC Moore Gallery through February 3, Meatyard took portraits of his family and friends, generally restricting the images to two models at a time, in the most ordinary of environments, except that each model was wearing a latex mask of the kind that might be purchased to dress as a monster or disguise oneself for a bank robbery. Astonishingly, the same mask seems to bear different expressions in different photographs, while the expression of the sitter has been erased. What remains, and what defines each photograph, is body language. And that body language is photographed against what was then emerging suburbia.
While Meatyard’s photographs are often spoken of in relationship to his sitters, they are also a profound early portrait of suburban America. Meatyard spoke of the erasure of the face as a democratizing strategy, and perhaps this was also an ambition of post-war America – to create a suburban world of equal citizens, with equal opportunities and identical houses filled with nearly identical consumer products. Yet the underbelly of this vision was a totalitarian regime, developing simultaneously in the Soviet Union, in which individual rights didn’t matter, and state-produced items – identical, shabby, and scarce – were the only ones available. In a strange way, this Cold War drama plays out in each tiny frame. Meatyard’s prints are both genteel and perverse, and it is this tension that makes them so enduring.