Final Major Project: Considering Others – Ralph Eugene Meatyard
The use of masks in photography is as old as the medium itself. Ralph Eugene Meatyard was fascinated with exploring the ordinariness of family life. He placed his friends and family in masks in various locations to combine the banal with the unusual to offer a new take on family portraits.
Meatyard’s use of masks universalises his subjects. He made a conscious decision to stage these images rather than take portraits of individual people. The masks reflect the faces we all put on for the camera. Like Meatyard, I intend to use masks to standardise and anonymise people, including myself. James Rhem quoted one of Meatyard’s participants, Mary Browning Johnson in his essay:
“He said he felt like everyone was connected, and when you use the mask, you take away the differences.”
– (Zax 2011)
In his article for Smithsonian.com, Zax quotes Gowin who once posed for Meatyard:
“Gowin…recalls thinking that wearing a mask would surely erase all sense of personhood. “But when I saw the pictures,” he says, “I realized that even though you have the mask, your body language completely gives you away. It’s as if you’re completely naked, completely revealed.””
– (Zax 2011)
From his work, it is clear that Meatyard was interested in the visual perception of the viewer. His images are deliberate and staged. They lead the viewer to search for inner truth and meaning beyond the momentary surface captured by the camera.
But what exactly are the masks hiding? Are they covering up the person or is the person completed by the wearing of the mask? The direct gaze of the masked subjects challenges the viewer through the lens of the camera.
His work is often thought of as creepy and unsettling, yet have a familiarity about them caused by the placing and posing of the subjects within everyday settings and interactions. It is this aspect that I intend to explore further in my own work.
Figure 1: From Dolls and Masks. Photograph © 2011 Ralph Eugene Meatyard/Radius Books.
Figure 2: From Dolls and Masks. Photograph © 2011 Ralph Eugene Meatyard/Radius Books.
Zax, D. 2011. “Ralph Eugene Meatyard: The Man Behind the Masks”. Smithsonian [online]. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/ralph-eugene-meatyard-the-man-behind-the-masks-106625198/ [accessed 1 February 2018].
Figures 1 and 2: These masked children are too scary even for Halloween. 2018. Timeline [online]. Available at: https://timeline.com/photos-masked-children-halloween-698c7731f5c1 [accessed 1 February 2018].