The "Wildly Strange" Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard
By Jessica S. McDonald
Studying the creative process of artists and writers, as well as tracing collaborations and intersections between them, is at the core of research at the Harry Ransom Center. In March 2015, the Ransom Center will highlight the intersection of photography and poetry in its collections, while celebrating creative collaboration across campus, in an exhibition organized with the Blanton Museum of Art. Wildly Strange: The Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard will feature approximately 35 photographs exclusively drawn from the Ransom Center's photography collection and archives of writers in Meatyard's intellectual network.
In the late 1950s, Meatyard (1925–1972) began staging elaborate visual dramas enacted by his wife, children, and close friends, and experimenting with multiple exposure, blur, and abstraction to imbue his images with an ambiguous, dreamlike quality. The abandoned farmhouses and densely wooded forests of rural Kentucky served as sets for Meatyard's symbolic scenes, turning otherwise ordinary family snapshots into unsettling vignettes of life in a deteriorating South. Meatyard called these photographs "Romances," adopting the definition American satirist Ambrose Bierce provided in his Devil's Dictionary: "Fiction that owes no allegiance to the God of Things as They Are."
Groundbreaking in their time and challenging even today, Meatyard's photographic fictions were embraced by his circle of writers and artists in Lexington, Kentucky. Guy Davenport (1927–2005), a close friend and neighbor, was routinely one of the first to examine Meatyard's new work and used one of his photographs on the cover of Flowers & Leaves, Davenport's 1966 long poem. Just after Davenport viewed the last of Meatyard's photographs in 1972, he wrote to literary scholar Hugh Kenner of the "wildly strange pictures" he had seen. The exhibition will present an intriguing selection of Meatyard's "Romances" made between 1958 and 1970, including rare variants of published images.
While Meatyard's "Romances" are familiar to those who study and appreciate photography, his evocative portraits of writers are less well known. Often incorporating the spectral blur and unconventional angles of his primary work, they served as unconventional authors' portraits for book jackets and promotional materials. Prints were exchanged among Meatyard's sitters, and many entered the Ransom Center's collections with their archives. A group of these portraits will be assembled in Wildly Strange: The Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard to highlight the relationships both between these creative figures in Lexington and across the collections at the Ransom Center.
As the Ransom Center continually seeks innovative ways to share its collections, this collaboration with the Blanton Museum of Art will introduce its photography holdings to a new audience and will demonstrate the collective strength of the cultural institutions across The University of Texas at Austin campus. Wildly Strange: The Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard is organized by Jessica S. McDonald, the Nancy Inman and Marlene Nathan Meyerson Curator of Photography at the Harry Ransom Center, and will be on view at the Blanton Museum of Art from March 7 to June 21, 2015.