Rather than using photography to document the world as it is, Ralph Eugene Meatyard was a pioneer in staging and manipulating photos to create images that allude to dreams and fantasy. Starting in the late 1950s, he directed friends, family members and kids to don masks and pose for tableaux, often using crumbling houses, fields and woods near his home in rural Kentucky as backdrops. A new exhibition puts his symbolic and dreamy images in the context of Meatyard’s lifelong interest in poetry, novels and philosophy. “Wildly Strange: The Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard,” on view at the Blanton Museum of Art, draws from the archive of the Harry Ransom Center, the library which, like the Blanton, is on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. The exhibition includes 35 photographs—some never before exhibited—that Meatyard made between 1958 and 1970. Most are the results of the experiments with staged images, multiple exposures, blur and abstraction for which Meatyard is best known. The exhibition also includes several portraits he made of writer friends, such as Wendell Berry, Denise Levertov, and the theologian, mystic and monk Thomas Merton. One of his friends and sitters was writer Guy Davenport, who used a Meatyard photo for the cover of his 1976 poetry collection, Flowers and Leaves. Many of Davenport’s Meatyard prints entered the Ransom Collection after his death, and are on display in “Weirdly Strange.” The Blanton complements Meatyard’s portraiture with a variety of painted portraits and prints from its collection.
The Ransom Center’s Jessica S. McDonald, who curated the show at the Blanton, has written of Meatyard’s work, “Literature played a crucial role in shaping his personal vision and his approach to photography, providing a path beyond the prevailing conventions of the medium.” The exhibition demonstrates not only how Meatyard’s experiments took photography in new directions, but how he also expanded the definition of what can be poetic beyond the printed page.
—Holly Stuart Hughes
“Wildly Strange: The Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard” is currently on view through June 21 at Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin.