An enigmatic figure in the history of American photography, Ralph Eugene Meatyard was born in 1925 in Normal, Illinois.
Taking up photography in 1954, Meatyard spent most of his life as an optician and photographer in Lexington, Kentucky. He was a reclusive polymath and avid hiker, creating sculpture, writing and photography in the spare time he had. His life’s work largely revolved around the signature Southern Gothic photography style he had developed using masks and dolls in an exploration of identity, taking figurative pictures of his own wife and children within abandoned farmhouses and gloomy woodlands of the Red River Gorge.
In the latter half of his career, he had several one-man and group shows with artists such as Ansel Adams and Minor White. Focusing on the uncanny and the disturbing, Meatyard explores the possibilities of New Identity and the Uncanny posed by the utilization of mask as persona. Meatyard focused on the way light fell on objects, instead of the objects themselves. He would compose before creating, adding and subtracting models to a carefully chosen backdrop. His final work was The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater, a collection of snapshot-style mask portraiture based on a narrative theme which was completed just before passing away due to cancer in 1972.
Madonna (1964) from Portfolio Three is a monochrome 15×12 inch image shot on a Rolleiflex TLR camera of a clean-cut woman in conservative dress standing in profile against a set of venetian blinds, inside a dark room. Her hair is bobbed, and she has a strong nose and chin. The window behind her is blown out by the sun so much that it is only seen as a glowing, ethereal light. It is daytime outside, and there is no light in the interior of the shot other than the light coming inside from the sun itself.
The room on either side of the woman is fully wreathed in shadow with no discernable detail. She stands in silhouette, and the form of her features is highly defined, like a Victorian silhouette painting. The viewer can also see a young girl about half the woman’s height with a tight ponytail on the lower half of the image, who is mirroring the adult woman’s position. She is barely visible. It is possible that she is wearing a mask. The girl’s arm and hand can barely be seen, but she is hugging the woman and resting her head against the woman’s stomach. She is in silhouette except for her forehead and the top of her ponytail. The blinds are irregular, with those nearer to the top of the window being bent to allow a highlight on the woman’s nose, chin, and collar, while the lower blinds create a regimented horizontal pattern lower in the image, just above the young girl. Both subjects stare straight ahead and seem to be barely aware of each other, but there is an intimate quality to the image.
The window at the center of the image takes up most of the frame. Two white lines rise vertically on either side of the two female subjects, one line more solid than the other, and a third creates a roof-like structure across the top of the first two lines, enclosing the two figures. Beneath this, the window’s shape can be seen – a half crescent. One of the drawstrings, distorted by the bent blinds, recreates the shape of the woman’s sloping shoulder on the top right of the image. To offset the drawstring within the composition, the young girl is placed at the bottom left to capture the viewer’s eye and keep it within the structure that Meatyard has created. This creates a room-within-a-room effect where the space outside the window itself becomes entirely spatial – a landscape of its own, ever-returning the viewer’s eye to the center of interest, the woman’s face in profile. The darkness outside this enclosure becomes a tangible thing.
Disruption of line is a large part of why this image works. The bent blinds echo the more organic shapes of the upper half of the woman’s body, allowing some light into the frame to expose the minute details of hair and fabric while the lower, straighter blinds accentuate the upright, rigid pose of the two subjects. Atop the image, the half-crescent shape mimics the curvature of the heads of both female subjects. This shape is further accentuated by the bent and broken blinds beneath it.
The two black lines perpendicular to the edges of the window itself are also slightly distorted, creating a wide funnel shape that gets narrower as it gets closer to the bottom of the image, eventually only leaving about an inch of space on the side of either subject.
There are a few themes that can be brought to the table within Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s Madonna. Firstly, a Virgin Mary theme resounds throughout the entire image – the title, Madonna, the window acting as an aureole, the glowing circle that surrounds something holy, and the mother and child imagery within this holy circle. Additionally, there is an intense dichotomy within the light and shadow that Meatyard works with within this piece, conveying the image of a stained-glass window or cathedral interior from his wide range of inspirations. In fact, Meatyard has been known to experiment with religious imagery, seen in Ralph Eugene Meatyard: An Aperture Monograph, where he affixes a baby doll to a cross and titles it his ‘Murcan Religion’, a play on crucifixion imagery within the Americana context of his small Kentucky town. With the straight back and high collar of the subjects, there are elements of American Christianity that seep through into the image, as the archetypical religious country wife could perhaps be seen as a Virgin Mary of the time.
In addition, there is a connection to Sigmund Freud’s concept of the Uncanny. In his writing on the subject, one description he gives of the Uncanny is something terrifying that was once very familiar to us. This image may be placed in that category due to its portrayal of motherhood – a concept very familiar to the viewer at large, as to Freud himself, but something has been changed irrevocably within this image to create a palpable uneasiness. The mother within this image does not seem to react in any way to the child in the room, nor the efforts the child makes to connect. She stands motionless without any reaction, staring into the distance while this child faces towards her, pleading.
Of course, the viewer may also see this image through the eyes of the mother. The child in this image appears distorted. Its forehead bulges and the silhouette of its nose appears tapered, barely there. The mother stands stoically while something that is not quite a child embraces her. There is uncertainty in the air.
Meatyard’s style revolved on what happens to a human body when it is masked. He posed that it changes the way we see a body in discernable ways, and that it changes the way a body sees themselves. While we may not see a literal mask on the woman in the picture – the mask in this image is that of the American housewife. The darkness in the room reducing the woman and girl to paper-doll type figures.
Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s sometimes controversial work succeeds in sparking discussion even now, in 2020. His style can be seen in many contemporary artists of the 21st century, like David Lynch, whose dark and gloomy paintings and films reflect a darker side of American culture. But like Meatyard, he takes joy in delving into the darker places of the world.
This image is successful in being one of Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s most beautiful, Pictorialist images. It is a hazy yet carefully calculated dream-image that calls back to some of the most famous religious imagery known to man. However, this beauty may break Meatyard’s Southern Gothic, gritty and unkempt mold. There may be too much information given to the viewer within this image, reducing the interpretable elements to only a few may shift this image too much into a traditional family portrait – something entirely too topical without anything underneath.
Masks, dolls, and ghosts pervade Meatyard’s work. Monstrous children and strange, ethereal spirits fly from one abandoned building to the next. Whatever photographer decides to take up the reigns of documenting a Ghoulish America next, the spirit of Meatyard will be right beside them, all the way.
“1/125.” Wayback Machine. Accessed February 11, 2020. https://web.archive.org/web/20150217185619/http://one125.net/tagged/Ralph-Eugene-Meatyard.
Edwards, Sarah. “Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s Sweetly Southern-Gothic Family Album.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, June 18, 2017. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/ralph-eugene-meatyards-sweetly-southern-gothic-family-album.
Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” Romantic Writings, 2017, 318–25. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315088617-16.
“Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Dolls and Masks.” The Art Institute of Chicago. Accessed February 10, 2020. https://www.artic.edu/exhibitions/1349/ralph-eugene-meatyard-dolls-and-masks.
Meatyard, Ralph Eugene. Ralph Eugene Meatyard: an Aperture Monograph. New York: Aperture, 1974.