Unreal Nature

March 11, 2015

A Meatyard

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:41 am

… a photograph is a stage, the subject an actor …

This is from the essay ‘Tom and Gene’ by Guy Davenport found in Father Louie: Photographs of Thomas Merton by Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1991):

… The relationship of artist and model is one that has taken its place as a subject in art at least since Vermeer. Picasso meditated on it in many suites of drawings and etchings; it is implicit throughout Rembrandt. In our time artist and subject have an equal claim on our attention. When Henri Cartier-Bresson photographed the old Matisse, the result is “a Cartier-Bresson,” the subject of which is Matisse. All of Gene’s photographs of Tom Merton are “Ralph Eugene Meatyards,” subject: Thomas Merton.

Gene’s studies of the Zukofskys, Louis and Celia, achieved in their New York apartment, are also very much “Meatyards.” They had met Gene here in Lexington, at my house, and knew his work, and knew what they were in for. Gene liked to say that he photographed essence, not fact. Gene read Zukofsky before he photographed him; Zukofsky’s layered text turns up as double exposures in the portraits, as oblique tilts of the head, as blurred outlines. The “innocent eye” of Monet and Wallace Stevens was not for Gene: he needed to know all he could about his subjects. He did not, for example, know enough about Parker Tyler, who sat for him, and came out as a complacent southern gentleman on a sofa, and the photograph is neither Parker Tyler nor a Meatyard.

Tom Merton has been, and will be, written about extensively. He was photographed as much as the pope. We will always be reinterpreting Merton the man, with all his divergent energies, along with Merton the theologian, moralist, and philosopher. A photographic record is so obviously prime material for the biographer and commentator that we forget its importance, because of its usualness in our time. Try to imagine an image of Jesus, drawn or painted from life, and the kind of writing it would generate. Consider the mythic charisma Lincoln’s photographs have contributed to our sense of him. We are all healthily aware that photographs lie, deceive, and misrepresent, and yet we go right on reading them as if they were expert witnesses. Richard Nixon’s unfortunate face seems to spell out his lack of character, his villainy, his deviousness.

… Another distinguished American photographer, Douglas Haynes, of Arkansas, photographs children only, and has a thousand tricks of gesture and voice for beguiling his subjects into the maskless natural innocence he’s a master of capturing. A photographer of animals has the same problem, for a photograph is a stage, the subject an actor, and the moment of exposure a cue. Gene had no studio, never directed his subjects, and usually looked away, as if uninterested, before he triggered the shutter. I have spent several days being photographed by Gene, and never knew when he was photographing. We kept a conversation going, usually an exchange of anecdotes.

If you’re wondering why I haven’t included any of Meatyard’s pictures of Merton in this post, it’s because they all, in my opinion, suck. Or worse, they are painfully mediocre. Meatyard’s best, strongest work is the Lucybelle Crater project. I’ll be getting into that next week. It’s good stuff.

-Julie

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