A new book and exhibition that examine the remarkable history of the Lexington Camera Club in Lexington, Kentucky, emphasizes the importance of community in art-making by placing the career of the club’s most famous member—Ralph Eugene Meatyard—in context with the work of his mentors, protégés and peers.
In Kentucky Renaissance: The Lexington Camera Club and Its Community, 1954–1974, Cincinnati Art Museum Photography Curator Brian Sholis argues that Meatyard’s sophistication and his relationship to fellow artists has been underestimated. “The peculiar, uncanny characteristics of [Meatyard’s] best-known photographs, combined with our unquenchable thirst for narratives of solitary artistic genius, have remade a cosmopolitan artist and dedicated mentor into a backwoods folk hero.” The reality, Sholis reveals, was quite the opposite.
An Illinois native, Meatyard had moved to Lexington to work for an optician, in whose offices the Lexington Camera Club met. Encouraged by one of the club’s leaders, Van Deren Coke, Meatyard joined the club, and Coke became his early mentor. Coke created an atmosphere at the club that encouraged individual creative expression.
This not only influenced Meatyard’s work, but the work of peers such as Dr. Zygmunt S. Gierlach, a radiologist who used medical equipment to make fantastic abstract images, and Robert C. May, who pursued experimental landscape photography. When Coke moved away to study for an art history degree, Meatyard went on to mentor other photographers such as Cranston Ritchie. Others within the Lexington Camera Club sphere included Charles Traub and Guy Mendes, who were in Louisville at the time, and Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who is best known for his writing but who also pursued photography and developed friendships with Meatyard and other Camera Club photographers.
In the book, published by Yale, and the exhibition, on view until January 1, the work of these and other photographers influenced by the Lexington Camera club is organized by subject: People, Places and Experiments. Many of the images echo one another in their compositions, but they also reveal the strong individual perspectives of their authors. Meatyard may be the best-known of this group, but the exhibition and book encourage wider recognition for each artist in this unique milieu, and for the spirit of creative encouragement and community it fostered. —Conor Risch