Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Fiction that owes no allegiance to the God of things as They are.

Mario Cutajar in his introduction to a Meatyard exhibition at the Paul Kopeiken Gallery said "..The basis for this introduction of Meatyard into the postmodernist pantheon is the blatant theatricality of his staged images, and his quite evident disdain for the objectivity of photography. That these qualities distinguish his work from that of his anti-pictorialist contemporaries (Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and other proponents of "pure" photography) is unquestionable. But there are other qualities (or lack of) in Meatyard's work that make it equally resistant to postmodernist affiliation. For one thing, it is neither ideologically motivated nor self-conciously subversive. It is not constrained by the pretty resentments of identity politics. It is free of both smarty pants irony and the cheap, cultivated anomie of the unattached (Meatyard was a family man). It is personal in the way personal used to mean before Americans started to flock to talk shows to compete at being freaks." It is not that Meatyard used masks in his work - though this seems to be associated with his work in a hugely disproportionate way - to disguise the wearer of the mask, the view is of a masked character in the environment that the viewer denotes in the photograph. Of Mask's Meatyard said "..(masks) release the " aroma of having a person, a human being in the picture, which stands for an entirely different thing than having a particular human being in the picture." In the picture above, it is of no consequence that the models are his kith and kin, the consequence is that there are characters in a particular pose, relating to one another in a particularly structured way to induce in the viewer a perception. The title of the piece is: "Romance (N) from Ambrose Bierce #3,".

Meatyard appears to me to offer this challenge to the viewer: Is what you see (in a photograph) the reality of 'the things as they appear' or is the reality that appears (in the photo) evidence that nothing is what it appears?
Meatyard who was widely read took the writings of the ironic Ambrose Bierce's definition of "romance" as: "Fiction that owes no allegiance to the God of Things as They Are." Wendell Berry, Meatyard's collaborator for a number of years said of him "Meatyard..is always seeing or catching a trace of the presence of something that I have missed, or he turns my visions against my reason, or he requires my belief to venture off in the direction of the incredible. Sooner or later he's going to produce evidence that you are not what you think you are."
Both of these quotations seem to echo each other in that a "romance" in Bierce's view (and by association maybe Meatyard's also) is a romantic view of a situation - in this case the view presented to the viewer - that doesn't rely on truth as depicted, but rather the fiction the develops in the mind of the viewer to the association of the component parts (or the props as staged). The latter part of Berry's quote suggest something rather similar, that maybe what you see as a viewer in one of Meatyard's images, is compromised by who you are, by what narrative you bring to the fixed image and so Meatyard questions both the viewers comprehension of the image as a piece of truth and the images projection of the truth to the viewer.

Born in Normal Illinois, Meatyard had a fairly normal life, apart from his art. After a few minor hiccups in his academic and early professional life he set up as a optician in Lexington, Kentucky. A family man who originally brought a camera to take pictures of his first born child, within a few years he stopped taking pictures of his children - as subjects of family pictures - and focussed all his photography on his 'art", often using his family members as models. It seems ironic to me that Meatyard, an optician, used photography as a medium.
In respect of photography he was an autodidact, it is recorded that he attended a workshop with other photographers, but his craft was essentially self-taught. He disregarded the strictures of Adams' zone system and regularly underexposed his shots; he rarely, if ever, made a contact set and would only print a negative once or perhaps twice - though he once declared "I never will make an accidental photograph."Most curious was though what is described these days as a "work-flow". Meatyard would work nine 'till five during the week, support his children and family with activities etc, but on Sundays it would be the time to take pictures. Meatyard would have a very clear idea about either researching a site or the set-up for a shot that the family might be recruited to participate in. The shots would be taken and they would return home, no development of the film would take place at that time. Once a year Meatyard would spend a few weeks developing and printing all the previous twelve months exposed film. Now either he had a prestigious memory, or, more likely, he made prestigious notes, because he didn't print contact sheets of these frames he  exposed up to a year before, he then selected shots for printing. As a photographer I cannot fathom the restraint required not to develop the film as soon as possible; the need to view the end result - especially in shots as posed and staged as Meatyard's to me is staggering.
Meatyard's photography was informed not only by the slightly surreal texts, similar to Bierce, but also the European surrealists. He was also unafraid to depict his views on the contemporary political unease surrounding the integration of African American into mainstream American society, as well as the traditional north/south divide, that he felt acutely, living as he did in Lexington. The lower shot depicts a short term exercise in "non-focus" photography, where he deliberately introduced out of focus images and camera movement - though this genre seems somewhat unfulfilled in his oeuvre.

I was distantly aware of Meatyard's work, but was recommended to look further into it by my tutor. I am glad he did so, though I think I will need to study a great deal more to get to understand some of the visual language that Meatyard employed. More work needed.


Ref: Mario Cutjar's essay is here

1 comment:

  1. Interesting! Never heard of him before—but am drawn to the staged images!