Text from James Rhem, preface to "The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater"
Behind the Billboard, or Lucybelle UnmaskedAt the time of his death in 1972, the brilliant American photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard had just completed a work that seemed quite different from the images for which he was widely known. The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater as Meatyard envisioned it, comprised sixty four 7x7 inch photographs. In each image but the last, the photographer's strikingly beautiful wife, Madelyn, appears in a hag's mask next to a different friend or relative in a semi transparent old man's mask. Gene Meatyard himself is the relative in the first of these images, and he plays Lucybelle in the last of them, wearing the hag's mask and woman's clothing, while Madelyn Meatyard wears the old man's mask. For all but one of these double portraits, Meatyard had written captions. He planned to have the book's design amplify its controlling aesthetic an old fashioned family album with black pages and captions handwritten in white beneath the pictures. The design, the captions, and the sequence of images were chosen so as to realize the fully structured aesthetic object that he had in mind.' He was not quite forty seven when he died, and moving toward, not from, his creative peak. Indeed, the way in which the Lucybelle he visualized summarizes and yet differs from his previous work offers clear evidence of the vigor and evolving complexity of his art.
When Lucybelle first appeared, attention centered on the masks or on Lucybelle as a fictional character. Important as the masks are, Meatyard had already given a clue that they were merely a starting place for understanding the work. In writing to his publisher a few months before he died, Meatyard said:
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 backgrounds & that has been the essence of my photography forever.As for the meaning of the work turning on Lucybelle's persona, the last image in the series, in which Gene and Madelyn switch clothes and he plays the Lucybelle part, makes it fairly clear that, in addition to being herself, she's been the photographer's "better half' holding the family together. The idea of family unites Lucybelle and the photographer not just in the first and last images, but throughout. It envelops and gives significance to the figures who pose beside her. They are both concrete and symbolic family, and the book's formal structure demands that they be understood as something other than bit players in an open ended, unanchored fiction. Just as Lucybelle has metaphorical significance, so do the figures with whom she's paired.
Family was a central element in Meatyard's artistic life, one that grew in importance as his life progressed. And thus, just as Gene and Madelyn were partners in producing their biological family, Lucybelle and the photographer become partners in producing this artistic one. Why make it "Lucybelle's" album? Primarily for aesthetic reasons, close analysis will reveal, but also perhaps because the album is an artistic creation that Meatyard knew he could not have achieved without her and one that would, like Madelyn, live on after him. Far from being merely a scrapbook collecting pictures of a fictional character, Lucybelle offers up the essence of Meatyard's artistic life unfolded as an epic of the ordinary and the transcendent, the banal and the extraordinary.
An encyclopedia entry on his life might read like this: "Born in Normal, Illinois, in 1925, the eldest of two sons, Meatyard attended Williams College as part of the Navy's V12 program in World War II. Following the war, he married, became a licensed optician, and moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he eventually opened his own shop, Eyeglasses of Kentucky. When the first of his three children was born, Meatyard bought a camera to make pictures of the baby. Quickly, photography became a consuming interest. He joined the Lexington Camera Club, where he met Van Deren Coke, under whose encouragement he soon developed into a powerfully original photographer. Attending to professional obligations during the week, he photographed only on weekends. Through Minor White, whom he met at a workshop organized by Henry Holmes Smith at Indiana University in 1956, he became interested in Zen, which then became a major influence on his photography. An eclectic and voracious reader, Meatyard became close friends with poets and writers, including Guy Davenport, Wendell Berry, Jonathan Williams, and the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Meatyard's work became well known and was exhibited widely within the United States and abroad. In 1972, he died of cancer, a week before his forty seventh birthday."
For thirty years, something like this sketch has held Meatyard's place in photo histories, but, like the fixation on the mask from which Lucybelle has suffered, it also has confined appreciation of his achievement. A sketch, even a rather full one like this, inevitably leaves unanswered questions, shadings to be filled in, and, often unthinkingly, we complete the picture with short hand notions of our ownabout the South, about Zen, about dying young, about a tradesman who was also an important artist. As yet we don't have a full biographical critical study of Meatyard, but in a good one the details about Meatyard's life, his reading, his thinking about Zen, his leadership in the Lexington Camera Club, and the rest of the facts sketched here would reveal an artist of far greater depth and importance than the one the sketch portrays.
How do I know this? If a careful analysis of Lucybelle does nothing else, it helps us get past the Meatyard of myth and legend into a fuller understanding of an artist very much worth serious critical attention. Moreover, since Lucybelle draws directly on the artist's life as the material here transformed into what Meatyard saw as a photographic poem, to probe its meaning and how it operates necessarily involves investigating some aspects of Meatyard's biography in more detail. One doesn't learn much about his early days growing up in Normal, Illinois, about his playing the accordion in the high school band, about his acting in plays and forming a fraternity, though these would figure importantly in a full biography. The "life" Lucybelle elevates begins later. In its fiction, Lucybelle offers a picture of the mature artist the artist as he saw himself and as he sought to be seen. Lucybelle shows us something of his inner life, the springs of his sensibility, and his values expressed as he always expressed them, through what was in his hands photography's eloquent vernacular.
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