The Family Album

about Ralph Eugene Meatyard

Normal: This word haunts me since childhood. What does it really mean? Who determines what is normal and what is not? Is it normal living in a society, adapting to its laws, enjoying and suffering in the same way? Or, perhaps, it’s more secretly normal be out of it, in some way? Wearing some masks and driving out in the countryside on Sundays, capturing a new family, looking for a dream…

Ralph Eugene grew up in Illinois, in a town called Normal. He moved a lot, and his father changed jobs nearly as often, working variously as a gas station attendant, dairy salesman, and mechanic. But it was his work restoring historic houses that foretold his son’s future photographic interests. His truly unique vision began to emerge when he started working regularly on photographs of his children, wife and friends staged in tense relationship with their surroundings. He would suddenly stop the car at some abandoned antebellum mansion to use it as a stage for the performances that would become his photographs.



His children, who had grown up with a shutterbug dad were often his models. They wore bizarre masks, hold tattered doll parts, all to unsettling effect. The images were not casual shots of kids at play in the backyard, but were arresting compositions guided by his counterculture beliefs and framed with serious technical skill. Though Ralph was an outsider to the photo world of the ’50s and ’60s, he took his craft seriously, attending workshops by Henry Holmes Smith and Minor White and spending holidays and weekends perfecting his practice for himself and his circle of artist friends. By never aligning with any single art movement, he created a visionary model for contemporary staged portraiture and is now justly lauded for being ahead of his time.

Born in 1925 and died of cancer in Lexington, in 1972, Ralph worked his entire adult life as an optician, making lenses for glasses. His iconic final project, The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater, was published after his untimely death by the Jargon Society. The final stint of a traveling collection organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, the PMA show features some 50 photographs and chronicles Meatyard’s use of his odd props to explore themes like childhood, mortality, intimacy and concealment. It’s a rare glimpse at weird scenes from a bold mind.



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