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Ralph E. Meatyard: At Face Value

Pareidolia is a word used to describe the well-known human phenomenon in which people find meaningful patterns or images in seemingly insignificant objects. If you have ever seen an animal shape in the clouds, a man on the moon, or a religious icon in a piece of toast, then you are probably familiar with this anthropomorphic tendency in humans. And we don’t just find shapes and faces in inanimate things—we unconsciously imbue them with human qualities. It seems we’re hardwired to find ourselves in the things around us, from smiling cars to that sad rug discarded on the side of the street. Perhaps this is the reason why masks, in almost every culture around the globe, play important roles in expressing and evoking emotions and signifying important aspects of social life. Masks are also featured prominently in the work of photographer Ralph E. Meatyard, as seen in our exhibition, Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Dolls and Masks.

Based in Lexington, Kentucky, Meatyard filled the southern landscapes and abandoned houses of his surroundings with haunting masked figures and dolls. He often cast his own family members in these photographic stagings, posing his wife and three sons in dime-store Halloween masks. In other images, Meatyard “masks” his subjects in a different way, by intentionally blurring the faces of his sitters. These blurred figures are sometimes more evocative because they are less defined and leave more room in the picture for one’s own imagination. On the one hand, Meatyard’s photographs are personal, dark, and macabre. At the same time, the masks, dolls, and undefined faces universalize the figures in his work. Like the man on the moon, Meatyard’s photographs cast us in our most sympathetic light, by forcing us to utilize that uniquely human ability to find ourselves in even the strangest of places.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Ambrose Bierce, 1964. © The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.