Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Stories These Masks Could Tell: Literary References in the Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Stories These Masks Could Tell: Literary References in the Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard

Article excerpt

Meatyard's Ambrose Bierce and Lucybelle Crater photographs may be seen as literary due to their narrative aspect and the fact that the underlying stories are especially compelling. Direct and indirect parallels with specific works of literature reveal that the masks in these photographs signify a transformation that embraces the tension between reality and representation.

**********

Peering through a mask, our perspective is always the same. The scene, though, constantly changes: as the world keeps going by we look for something familiar and often focus on what we recognize. In Ralph Eugene Meatyard's photographs we do not see through a mask but look at it, examine it, ponder it. In addition to being mysterious, Meatyard's masks often take on a literary, even narrative, quality. The anecdotes behind the photographs are often as intriguing as the images themselves, because the figures become characters in a visual myth and the masks suspend their representations between fact and fiction. Meatyard's masked characters become universal specimens, representing no one yet relevant to everyone because their identity is not revealed visually. The viewer might never know who is depicted without being told. Not only can Meatyard's photographs be seen as literary due to the compelling nature of the underlying stories, but direct and indirect parallels can also be made with specific written works.

Meatyard has consistently been described as a lover of books and an avid reader. In an essay called "Remembering Gene Meatyard," poet Wendell Berry declares that "one could not be around Gene for long without becoming aware of his reading, not because he talked much about books, but because books were always piled around him and he loved to show them to you" (ix). Meatyard's extensive library contained books on Eastern religion, science, history, philosophy, mathematics, and philosophy as well as poetry, literature, photography, and vision (Keller 10). In addition to Berry, Meatyard's friends included such authors, writers, and poets as Guy Davenport, Jonathan Greene, Denise Levertov, Thomas Merton, and Jonathan Williams. Eastern philosophy and poetry were primarily informative to Meatyard's abstract photographs, while the figurative work seems more aligned with fiction and short stories. His literary interests have been mentioned in virtually every major publication about Meatyard, including a recent dissertation by Therese Mulligan focusing on the relationship between Meatyard's photography and poetry. The present study presents the writings of Gertrude Stein, Flannery O'Connor, and Ambrose Bierce--writers in whom Meatyard was especially interested--as important parallels to the narrative strategy, ambience, and sensibility of the suggestive prose in Meatyard's figurative works that incorporate masks. Building on existing scholarship with regards to the writing of Stein and O'Connor, as well as looking anew at the connections between Bierce and Meatyard, operative mechanisms as well as specific characteristics in works by these authors will be examined to allow a greater understanding of the true literary nature of his photographs and to reveal the way they effectively negotiate the seemingly opposing realms of fiction and reality.

Examining literary allusions in several photographs from Meatyard's The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater (1969-72) and two photographs titled Romance (N) of Ambrose Bierce (1962-63) reveals a few of the potential stories that his masks could tell. Meatyard's titles disclose the scholarly inspirations for these works in O'Connor's and Bierce's writing and his correspondence indicates the preponderance for Stein's approach (Meatyard 74; Rhem, Ralph 40-43; Tannenbaum 39-50). After expanding on the references to Gertrude Stein's witty repetition and Flannery O'Connor's "Southern Gothic" style, this essay will look closely at the connections between Meatyard's photographs and Ambrose Bierce's writing, specifically his short stories, since very little formal investigation has been undertaken to uncover the nuances of its relevance for the imagery. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.