Ralph Eugene Meatyard: The Man Behind the Masks

The “dedicated amateur” photographer had a strange way of getting his subjects to reveal themselves

Ralph Eugene Meatyard said that masks erased the differences between people. He photographed his family, shown here, in 1962. (The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)
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His last major project was The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater, a series of portraits of his wife and a rotating cast of family and friends; it was published posthumously in 1974. The project’s title was inspired by the Flannery O’Connor story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” in which a woman introduces both herself and her deaf-mute daughter as “Lucynell Crater.” In Meatyard’s book, everyone is masked, and everyone is identified as “Lucybelle Crater.” As Gowin says of his friend: “He was so many people all mixed up in one.”

The bookish Zen jazzmeister also served as president of the local PTA and the Little League and flipped burgers at the Fourth of July party. Meatyard “was a quiet, diffident, charming person on the surface,” says his friend the writer Guy Davenport. But that, he added, was “a known ruse of the American genius.”

David Zax, a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York, is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.


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