Ralph Eugene Meatyard
Photographing Thomas Merton
June 17 – July 26, 2014
Institute 193, Lexington
Ralph Eugene Meatyard was first introduced to Thomas Merton at the Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, Kentucky, in 1967. The two men clearly made an impression on one another and quickly embarked on a friendship and creative dialogue that would last two years, cut short only by Merton’s untimely death. In that brief amount of time, they held intense conversations, exchanged letters, and Merton became the subject for a series of photographs by Meatyard, the focus of our exhibition.
Thomas Merton, a willing and complicit model, appears in a variety of costumes throughout the photographs. He wears blue jeans and a t-shirt, the work clothes of a tobacco farmer, or the complete habit of a Cistercian monk. Meatyard takes full advantage of the various outfits and their social ramifications to cast his model as spirit, common man, or saint. Merton was, undoubtedly, all of these things at various moments throughout his life.
These portrait sessions grew out of picnics, dinners, and casual meetings among friends. Jonathan Williams, Guy Davenport, Wendell Berry, and others make appearances in the photographs – witnesses and participants in a vibrant cultural scene that existed in Kentucky at that time. With our now omniscient knowledge of the past we cannot help but look at these photographs with a sense of foreboding and inevitable death. They are, after all, some of the last images of Merton, who died traveling abroad in the winter of 1968.
As an optician in Lexington, Meatyard spent his life helping people see. His shop, Eyeglasses of Kentucky, provided people with the physical means to better envision the world, but also the opportunity to view photographs and other works of art that opened their eyes to a larger world of visual possibility. Just before his final trip to Asia, Merton exhibited a series of his calligraphies at Meatyard’s shop. The photographer bought the eight works in the exhibition from his friend and sent him on his way. Meatyard wrote about Merton after his death, but their connection was perhaps best captured in these portraits of a famous man, of friendship, and of vision itself.
This exhibition is presented in collaboration with the Center for Interfaith Relations and sponsored in part by Lexington’s Good Shepherd Episcopal Church. A publication titled Meatyard/Merton, Merton/Meatyard: Photographing Thomas Merton has been produced in conjunction with the exhibition by Fons Vitae and is available through Institute 193. It features essays by Stephen Reily, Roger Lipsey, and Christopher Meatyard.
Alll images courtesy of Christopher Meatyard.