Ralph Eugene Meatyard was born in Normal, Ill. in 1925, perhaps dooming him from the start. Sure, the father and photographer was the president of the PTA and Little League, but he also took pictures of his children in abandoned mansions wearing weird masks.
Meatyard, trained as an optician, held a long-time interest in visual perception. This, combined with a college degree in philosophy and his self-described Zen influence, led to a desire to examine the otherworldly. The photographer, who hung dearly to his amateur status, went on road trips with his family, pulling over at abandoned farmhouses and ominous, decrepit mansions along the way.
Placing grotesque masks on his children and setting them free, Meatyard captured an un-choreographed mix of childhood innocence amid strange and horror-filled backdrops. They evoke the dark unknown histories lurking in "normal" America. Meatyard's photographs do to family portraits what Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" did to the nude portrait.
Yet many of Meatyard's most unsettling works don't involve children or masks at all. Mystery and suspense bubble up from the most unsuspecting landscape photos. Instead of manipulating the photographs in the darkroom to achieve a haunting effect, Meatyard played around with his camera while taking the pictures, often jiggling it to let the shadows emerge and billow forth on their own.
The collection is akin to how Francesca Woodman turned her home into a haunted house with a darkness that is light as air. Although Meatyard was content with the whiff of something strange, he paved the way for later artists like Paul McCarthy to take the mask to horrific new heights.
Ralph Eugene Meatyard's works will show from May 31 until July 20 at Peter Freeman, Inc in New York.