In my previous post on Meatyard, I mentioned that Meatyard was acquainted with Thomas Merton, and how flabbergasted I was by that — and that a book had been published with Meatyard’s photographs of Merton, along with their correspondence. Well, almost as soon as I found out about that book, Father Louie, I ordered a copy. (It’s well and thoroughly out of print, but used copies aren’t un-findable.)
The book contains a preface by Barry Magid, an essay on Meatyard and Merton (“Tom and Gene”) by Guy Davenport, two short pieces of writing by Meatyard — “Photographing Thomas Merton: A Reminiscence” and “A Eulogy of Thomas Merton,” correspondence between Meatyard and Merton, and a brief but nicely nitty-gritty note from Meatyard’s son Christopher about the negatives, the prints, and a bit about Meatyard’s gear and technique. And, of course, the photographs.
The photographs are a bit tricky to describe. It’s hard to judge their quality, in particular. They’re an inclusive group of photographs, minimally edited and chronologically sequenced. That doesn’t make them better or worse as individual photos, but because of the way they were assembled, they together make up more a useful historical resource than a significant photographic statement. Which isn’t a ding against them or against the book — although I guess it is a ding against history that Meatyard and Merton didn’t have the time for more of these photos. (The two met in 1967; Merton died in 1968.)
Portraiture and Identity
The photos are, on the surface, totally unlike Meatyard’s best-known work — the portraits of masked children, anonymous (or universalized), blatantly surreal and artificial. To a viewer without any context for them, the Merton photos might appear to be casual snapshots of family and friends — a picnic, a dinner party, and so on. Perhaps the work of a talented but careless amateur student photographer, prone to “accidents” like motion blur and odd exposures and awkward poses.
But we do have context — text that helps to clarify how the photographs relate to Meatyard’s intentions and oeuvre, and to Merton’s personality. Maybe the most useful aspect to this is understanding the meaning of portraiture — and how these portraits relate both to traditional ideas of portraiture and to Meatyard’s other work.
From Magid’s preface:
Thomas Merton became Father Louis to the brethren of Our Lady of Gethsemani.
To the world…he remained Thomas Merton, best-selling author and spiritual guide to his and our generation. But Merton was acutely aware of the danger of being trapped by these personae, and already in The Seven Storey Mountain he refers to that Thomas Merton as “my double, my shadow, my enemy”….
Gene Meatyard’s photographs, with their use of chance, motion, and multiple exposures, mirror the ever-changing, ephemeral nature of the self, which we normally fool ourselves into imagining as fixed and stable. When we open a book of photographic portraits, we are used to looking for how the photographer has captured the essence of his subject in a given image.
These pictures don’t do that.
Rather than gratify what Merton called “the hunger of having a clear satisfying idea of who he is and what he is and where he stands,” they subvert the whole notion of Essence, or of a Self to be captured. (pp. 9-10)
From Davenport’s essay:
Gene was interested in what happens to the rest of the body when the face is masked. A mask, like an expression, changes the way we see feet and hands, stance and personality. These photographs are both satiric and comic; their insight, however, is deep. We are all masked by convention and pretense. Merton would have said that we are masked by illusion. He was, as Gene perceived, a man of costumes (masks for the whole person). His proper costume was a Cistercian robe, in which he looked like a figure out of El Greco or Zurbaran. He liked wearing this in the wrong place, a picnic, for instance, of which Gene made a set of photographs. This was one of Gene’s favorite modes: the candid shot of families and groups, a use of the camera as old as photography, but in Gene’s masterly hands a psychological sketchbook, and a comedy of manners. (pp. 29-30)
Gene liked to say that he photographed essence, not fact. Gene read Zukofsky before he photographed him; Zukofsky’s layered text turns up as double exposures in the portraits, as oblique tilts of the head, as blurred outlines. The “innocent eye” of Monet and Wallace Stevens was not for Gene: he needed to know all he could about his subjects. He did not, for example, know enough about Parker Tyler, who sat for him, and came out as a complacent southern gentleman on a sofa, and the photograph is neither Parker Tyler nor a Meatyard.
The first thing we notice about Gene’s portraits of Tom is the wild diversity. Here’s Tom playing drums, and Tom the monk, and Tom the tobacco farmer, and Tom the poet (holding Jonathan Williams’s thyrsus). Many were taken when tom could not have been aware that he was being photographed. Many are posed in a collaboration between artist and subject.
Gene had agreed with me that Tom could look eerily like Jean Genet—John Jennet, as Gene pronounced the name, with typical Meatyardian intrepedity. This was within the psychological game of belying appearances, one of Gene’s games. For Tom resembled the French outlaw and prose stylist only when he was in his farmer’s clothes; that is, in a mask for the body. (p. 32)
From Christopher Meatyard’s notes:
Merton wore his monk’s habit, and provided Meatyard with his first and best opportunity to photograph him so attired. The black and white elements of the habit represent diverse aspects of the Trappist heritage. The white robe is a reminder of the twelve apostles and of the Trappists’ dedication to the Virgin, and is worn in choir. The black scapular dates back to the time of St. Benedict, the sixty century, when it functioned as an apron for those involved in manual labor. The hood of the scapular was seldom used except in processions. The contrast of black and white corresponds to Merton’s own personal combination of two branches of theological discourse: the apophatic, referring to the unknowability of God, and the cataphatic, referring to the theology of “light,” “good,” “life.” The wide leather belt “girds up the loins” and thus represents a profession even on top of another belt looped through jeans). A fishing cap bearing a pair of crossed swordfish as insignia tops of Merton’s habit. (p. 89)
You may note the contradiction between Magid and Davenport regarding “essence” — it is doubtless a contradiction with real metaphysical weight, and I think it does bear interestingly on the question of how “Zen” Meatyard was or wasn’t. But that’s of decidedly secondary concern; the point is that these photographs are light years away from the portrait as a portrayal of a unitary and fixed inner self inherent to the subject. They show the subject as fluid, as masked — but more than that, as deploying different masks at different times, managing a changeable identity.
This makes them both like and unlike Meatyard’s more familiar portraits — in which he provides his subjects with masks from his rather epic collection. Merton is differently (though not less) masked, but the masks are his own. The staging is similar — a mix of home ground and abandoned structures. The style is a mix — some are very similar to Meatyard’s other work, and some are different — more intimate, and with a greater sense of movement. (In the sense of natural gesture, rather than motion blur as a specific technique — although that is also very much in play.) Because of how Merton relates to costume and to identity, he feels like an equal player in the portrait game. I find this tremendously appealing — I prefer portraits where the subject isn’t totally at the descriptive mercy of the photographer.
Meatyard on Meatyard
When he brought his photographs over to show, always mounted, he was modestly silent. We did the talking, not he. He talked only about others’ photographs. (p. 35)
As to how Meatyard thought about his photography — and what he meant by it — the text is rather more oblique. Meatyard did not generally talk about his work, and what he did say could be obscure. For example, in his correspondence with Merton, Meatyard references a series of photographs he made in which a boy is photographed at different points along a wall, wearing different masks. (Some of these photos were at the de Young, referred to with series title “Along I Walk” — unfortunately, I did not take a picture of them, and I cannot find examples online.) Regarding this series, he composed a poem:
However, However; However -- How rove wearer, wherever lovers rave, the prover of history's hysterical plover.
Now, I haven’t the faintest clue what that means, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share it. If you have any suggestions, please post them in the comments.
Photographs in Context
Maybe the book’s greatest service is to provide context on individual photos — situating them in a time and a place, and relating them to meanings and intentions. This is especially valuable when it comes to Meatyard, because his photographs so often seem to emanate by chance from some charming yet monstrous alternate reality.
Meatyard made nine images of Merton’s profile as he read from the manuscript that would become Cables to the Ace (pages 2, 16-19). Each explored a different relationship between the silhouette and the outlining illumination. Meatyard modified Merton’s location by degrees to draw attention to the juxtaposition of the horizontal frame of the window and the vertical support post of the porch outside. He illustrated Merton’s apophatic speech by aligning one black arm of the momentary crucifix with the speaker’s ebullient tongue. (p. 87)
It was at this December meeting that Levertov and Merton discussed the merits of self-immolation as a way of protesting the war in Vietnam. It is tempting to see a visual commentary on this conversation in the triple exposure with the overlapping visages of Levertov, Merton, and Berry: almost everyone of its overlapping forms refers to fire. Levertov is seated in front of an active fireplace. The vivid wood grain of the cedar alter over the hearth opening recalls flames. Another image of the later is superimposed in that of the gas heater. The horizontal exhaust of the heater intersects with the later candle. The candle snuff reflects a flamelike light. A second image of the later candle hovers under a thermometer, which lends together with an alter icon. (p. 93)
Although some of the juiciest context is actually provided for a photograph which does not exist:
We retired to an unused farmhouse and farmyard were I proceeded to make some photographs of Tom and Guy. Backgrounds are important to my photographs and I used many around that farm for constructions and single and double portraits. There was one junction of a row of large leafed plants, a gate going to nowhere and a plowed field that looked interesting. I asked Tom to walk along next to the plants while I worked the camera. As he was walking he asked how far to go and I said for him to keep going. He did — and disappeared from view in the ground glass. I looked up and he was lying on his face in the field with his hat on his head. He was participating. None of us realized that there was a nine-inch drop-off from grass to field. We all laughed until we could laugh no longer — a pratfall is contagious in its humor. (p. 41)
Merton asked, “How far?” and Gene answered, “Keep going.” Merton’s stride found the vertical and he fell facedown, his robes billowing and flashing all of him there was to see to those assembled, including at least two women. I suppose my father intended for Merton to hop that step so that he could suspend him softly, airborne, and momentarily relate the monk to the ephemeral windswept wire with its solitary clothespin that reached toward him from the top of the inexplicable gatepost frame. (Wires, cables, and power lines were an important formal element in all the photographs made that day.) In the next frame Merton is seen marching back toward the camera, grinning broadly. Although one of Gene’s passions was recording the interstice of gesture — and he would not have let this moment pass — in this case the frame is blank for the fall itself, the record discrete. Gene dated the photograph “fall” even though the picnic took place in the early summer. (p. 86)
Miscellaneous Fun Facts
- Meatyard did not use contact sheets. (p. 5)
- He generally printed 1/3 of his negatives; with Merton, he printed 1/2 (p. 5)
- Most negatives he only printed once or twice (p. 5)
- Meatyard once identified a man immediately on sight based on a photograph of the subject at age ten (p. 25)
- “Gene had no studio, never directed his subjects, and usually looked away, as if uninterested, before he triggered the shutter.” (p. 33)
- Meatyard regarded color photography as “just some chemicals in the emulsion, nothing to do with photography.” (p. 35)
- In some of his photographs, he introduced motion blur by mounting the camera on a tripod, then kicking the tripod. (p. 35)
- “Meatyard, it should be noted, never took any family snapshots or made casual records after 1955.” (p. 92)
- “Gene was fascinated with his own name, Meatyard, and was delighted when I pointed out that it is the Middle English meteyeard, or yardstick, cognate with the name Dreyfus. And that his first name is properly pronounced “Rafe.” He approved of Edward Muggeridge’s changing his name to Eadward Muybridge.” (p. 28)