Another Family

Back in the 1970s, one of the first photographic books I bought, well certainly one of the first hundred or so, was the Aperture Monograph on Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Never a photographer I’ve felt much inclination to deliberately ape, I did find his work of interest at a time I was searching for direction, even if his was not a direction I ever took.

Inside the front cover is an introduction by James Baker Hall, an American poet, novelist, photographer and teacher who came from Kentucky, where Meatyard moved at the age of 25 in 1950 to work as an optician and bought his first camera on the birth of his first child to take pictures of him.

Four years later Meatyard joined the Lexington Camera Club and took a photography class with F Van Deren Coke who was also a member and who became his first mentor; Van Deren Coke included his work in a major group show and the two later exhibited together. He also bought a Leica, and the following year a Rolleiflex – and most of his well-known work was with the square format. In 1956 he attended a summer workshop where his teachers were Minor White and Henry Holmes Smith

But as Hall makes clear, Meatyard was a part of a wider cultural scene – influenced by literature and painting and “Many of his friends were writers – Wendell Berry, Guy Davenport, Jonathan Greene, Thomas Merton, Jonathan Williams; through them , and through his own steadily increasing reputation he came to know poets, publishers, filmakers, and photographers from all over the country.”

His reputation was widened after his early death from terminal cancer at the age of 46 in 1972. In his last two years, knowing he was dying, he worked on the Aperture Monograph and on a new set of images, The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater, both published in 1974. I remember looking through both of them and only being able to afford one.

I was reminded of Meatyard, who I wrote about some years ago, but I think only published a short note, by a feature in Lens, Meatyard at Home in Kentucky’s Cultural Scene, by

There is a good selection of images by Meatyard on the web at George Eastman House, and a nicely reproduced set at Masters of Photography.  The Fraenkel Gallery has a good page with links to articles and other exhibitions as well as its own. There is an article in the Smithsonian magazine, and American Suburb X has a page with links to half a dozen features, of which I found that by Guy Davenport particularly interesting. One particular quote struck me: “he developed his film only once a year; he didn’t want to be tyrannized by impatience.

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