Ralph Eugene Meatyard
No smiles, no tears, no ease. He is using only two masks: the mask of an old man expressing friendly resignation, and Lucybelles mask, depicting shear fright.
Smiling mothers, smiling fathers, smiling relatives and cute little kids are populating family albums. They all mask themselves very effectively. They smile for the camera the camera-smile. Family albums stand for a happy-together utopia.
Meatyards album doesn’t follow this pattern. Every one of you reading these lines knows the dark sides of family life too. Every one of you knows hatred, violence, depression, quarrels, alcoholism, illness, divorce, and death. Just name it.
Everybody hides those commonplace family secrets before the eyes of outsiders. And sometimes you just don’t want to know.
All we see are billboards advertising happiness.
“Billboards in any art are the first things that one sees- the masks might be interpreted as billboards. Once you get past the billboard then you can see into the past (forest, etc.), the present, &the future. I feel that because of the “strange” that more attention is paid to the backgrounds & that has been the essence of my photography forever.”
The image titled “”Lucybelle Crater + 20 yr old son’s legless wife”, Lucybelle Crater,” shows mother in law and daughter in law separated by geometric structures caused by light and shadow. Lucybelle hands are cramped. And yes, the legs of her daughter in law are hidden by a shadow. She lost her footing. This is an image about family relations and standing.
The masks stand for the general outlook on life at a given moment, they stand for the pitch of the album. Posture and position of the protagonists are giving clues how to interpret their relationships. Past this observation, the personal of this imaginary family album simply constitutes a sort of an inventory of Meatyards social network.
If one takes the effort to look and think about Meatyards images over and over again, the spontaneous fright over the expression of the masks will go, just to give place to a discovery of a wonderful game. A game with light and shadow, a game with the abstract qualities of the real, a hiding game, a game with words and a concept.
By and by the dissociating, surreal effect of the masks is loosing its strength. As in real life, the relevance of classifying your fellow humans in beautiful or ugly diminishes, and one gets involved with the being of the other. Something strange happens: though looking always at the same masks, one detects new moods and personalities in each photograph. Surroundings, posture, light and shadow, the use of the masks, all that leads to unbelievable variability of expression, something that wasn’t to be expected like that. It might be, that serial projects, repeating seemingly the same over and over again, small differences gain importance.
The longer I look at these images, the more Meatyards protagonists become real to me. I imagine them as real life persons. Stiffly they pose for the camera, that’s the way to do this. No ardor, no ease, just a kind of calm melancholy is connecting these images. In spite of the tensions Meatyard is hinting at, in spite of the foreignness, in spite of all those frustrated expectations in this complex system called family something very simple remains: familiar nearness, nearness that develops simply through the passage of time.
You won’t get more than that. That’s all there is.
Tragedy in the life of an artist seems to have a big appeal to those interested in fine arts. It might be that at times artist are expressing the suffering that we endure wordlessly. It is hard to separate the mythos of the suffering artist that boosts the interpretation of artwork in certain constellations, from the actual gain for the interpretation of his work.
Meatyards family album keeps its impact even without the knowledge of his deadly ailment. Before his death he assembled his family and other relations to work together with them on this last project. He made himself and them a present. It’s a prudent and heartwarming way to say good-bye to life.