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Save for his unusual name, Ralph Eugene Meatyard had all the trappings of an ordinary man. Born in 1925 in the Illinois town of Normal, the happily married father of three worked as an optician, coached his son’s baseball team, and even served as president of the Parent-Teacher Association.
But in his free time, Meatyard was also a self-taught photographer with a taste for the bizarre. On weekend trips into the dense woods of Kentucky, he staged nightmarish scenarios acted out by family members and populated with disfigured masks, broken mirrors, and dolls. In 1969, when asked about the sensation his photographs provoked, the suburban dad said it was a feeling “akin to a shiver, and pleasurable as a shiver sometimes is.” He called these unsettling images “romances,” adopting the definition of that word from Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary: “Fiction that owes no allegiance to the God of Things as They Are.” It’s safe to say that when Meatyard died of cancer at the age of 47 in 1972, he left behind one of the weirdest photographic oeuvres the world had then yet known.
Wildly Strange: The Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard at the Blanton Museum in Austin welcomes viewers into Meatyard’s eerie world through 35 images from the collection of the Harry Ransom Center. Taken between 1958 and 1970, they include the photographer’s classic mask images and landscapes, as well as dust jacket portraits he took for writer friends like Guy Davenport, Wendell Berry, and Thomas Merton. Though Meatyard believed photographs should be “felt in a similar way as one listens to music, emotionally, without expecting a story,” the images in the show can’t help but bring to mind Edgar Allan Poe’s famous lines: “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, / Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”
Wildly Strange: The Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard continues at the Blanton Museum of Art (200 East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Austin, Texas) through June 21.