Photograph by Jonathan Williams

Ralph Eugene Meatyard was born in Normal, Illinois. It's as simple as that. But no one ever believed Gene's name or where he was born. I have known painters named Otto Botto and Ben Benn. I have been to Wetwang in the East Riding of Yorkshire, and to Braggadocio, Missouri.
I first heard of Gene Meatyard from that canny, passionate, irascible photographer/teacher, Henry Holmes Smith, and soon after drove to see him in Lexington, Kentucky in 1960. And saw him regularly until his death in 1972. He was a good-looking man with a mildly saturnine air and an unexpected history of ill-health. He never spoke of such troubles, or said a word about his photographs. But, he'd happily show you 200 new prints in the family parlor if you asked him. He had a pretty wife and three kids. They lived half way down the next block in a tidy neighborhood. He looked like he might play pretty good golf on his Saturday afternoons, then putter about in the basement workshop. He worked as an optician, grinding lenses, and had a company called "Eyeglasses of Kentucky" in a little shopping center. (The exhibitions of prints he mounted on its walls made it one of the best galleries in all of Kentucky.) Just an ordinary guy. Like Franz Schubert or Henry James, he could make the "ordinary" scare you to death or sing like a bird.
Gene's reading was all over the ballpark but his attentions were very honed down. If you wrote poetry, he read it- there are few people like that on the planet. He seemed thoroughly at ease in Blue-Glass Limbo. A rube he wasn't. He rode quietly around in "The Strange," like city folks used to ride out to "The Country."
John Russell remarks of Eugène Atget that "he knew what was worth looking at." I suspect that we have very little sense yet of the range of Gene Meatyard's eye. The spooky pictures have pride of place, but that is a distortion. There are thousands of unfamiliar prints, and more thousands of negatives that have still never been printed. Meatyard's printing was limited to his two weeks of annual vacation. His weekends were reserved for shooting the exterior world of central Kentucky and his particular interior monologues: the growth and changes in his family and friends, the sequences using masks such as The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater. Lucybelle was everybody in the world. That's a lot of folks.
Where to place him or how to rank him? This inscrutable, affable, kind man occupied his "own" place with an assurance that reminds me of other American originals: Albert Pinkham Ryder, John Flanagan, Bruce Goff, Cormac MacCarthy. Scott Joplin. All them boys came from Normal. They are also forms of mutating viruses and super-cosmic titanisms from a distant galaxy. Remember "The Invasion of the Body-Snatchers"? That feller cutting the grass- is that Gene Meatyard?
(From Contemporary Photographers, St James Press, London & Chicago, 1985.)


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