Books · Performance & Arts

Photography monographs I

Ralph Eugene MeatyardRalph Eugene Meatyard by Judith Keller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a beautifully designed edition, with superb commentary on Meatyard’s complex, intellectual images. He is often associated with the writers of Beat literature, his contemporaries, with whom he shared an interest in spiritual themes (I’m indebted to my friend Loni Reynolds whose thesis awakened my sensitivity to this crucial aspect of the Beats). This is perhaps most obvious when, as in the image above, he transforms his children into ragged, ghostly, discomforting angels. Usually symbolic, his work is also aesthetically strong; he used Ansel Adams’ zone system and the tonal range of his images gives formal elegance to the starkest of his subjects, creating a sense of detachment. It’s not surprising that frames, glass and mirrors frequently appear, like a constant reminder of the artist’s consciousness.

It’s odd that this now seems naive and heavy-handed. The artist one senses behind this camera is emotionless, tyrannical, authoritarian, rigorously shaping and defining the scene/seen. I’m reminded that Impressionism and Expressionism in painting were in some ways responses to the rise of photography. The camera has the power to deny subjectivity and impose its eye as truth-maker. This is precisely what I feel happens with Meatyard, and even when his children gaze fiercely back, there is something subjected about them.

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