BEHIND THE MASK



Mask photo by Ralph Eugene Meatyard
Carl Jung

Ralph Eugene Meatyard                                                                    Carl Jung

I have been a fan of Ralph Eugene Meatyard for quite some time now. I discovered his work only a few years ago but I felt such a stong connection to his images that I have tried very earnestly to stay informed. His images can be interpreted in several different ways depending on who is viewing them but in my opinion many of them invoke a very haunting and mysterious as well as playful feeling. He only worked in black and white and had not only photographed people but created works dealing with nature (series titled Zen Twigs). In addition to this he also had a collection of abstractions and a series called "No Focus", "Light on Water", and "Motion-Sound" which all demonstrate how adept he was at composing images as well as printing the final product.  His most prominent photographs however are those that include the "masks" (later to be titled "Romances" by his poet friend Guy Davenport) which he is so fond of including in the majority of his well-known works. It is these particular photographs that have always puzzled me. Why is the mask such an important accessory to his work? Did the mask in his images represent anything or were they actually hiding something---perhaps some deep psychological anxiety or fear. Why was he so adamant about not showing faces? One could easily say that Meatyard was simply using the mask as a prop and that it meant absolutely nothing but if so than why was he just as adamant about photographing himself in the shadows or with masks? Meatyard rarely took a well-lit portrait of himself. In fact it wasnt until his later years, near  his death in 1972, that he would "come into the light" so to speak and expose himself to the world.  I find his work to be much deeper than what is visible within a frame. Whenever I view his images I feel something in the shadows tugging at me---a presence that remains pressed beneath the emulsion---something very repressed. I feel that his work was an expression of his feelings about individuality and identity.  Meatyard was said to have been very influenced by Zen and by poets such as William Carlos Williams.  The extent of his creative influences ends here the majority of the time but I honestly feel that he was influenced by his very own psyche and perhaps  the nature of human behavior and the ways  in which we present ourselves to the world.  In fact, I cannot help but think of Carl Jung whenever I glance at his work.  I see the mask in his photographs [Meatyard] and think of the psychological mask that Jung so often discusses in his own.

Carl Gustav Jung was a swiss psychiatrist that was originally a student of Sigmund Freud.  After studying under Freud for quite some time however he started to develop his own theories about the ego and personality which eventually led to his departure from Freuds theories.  Jung created a model for the human psyche wherein he discussed things such as the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious.   In addition to this he came up with his very own archetypes in regards to personality and  gave them names such as the persona, anima animus, and the shadow.   The one that interests me the most is that which is titled the persona and this is what comes to mind when I see a Meatyard image.  

The term persona is derived from a Latin word that means "mask" and that is exactly how Jung refers to it.  The persona is a facade, image, false self that an individual uses to function in the world.  It can be seen as a barrier or protective layer that keeps  a persons vunerable interior---the real self from harm.  The persona incorporates more than just an individuals personality but also the role that ones plays in society as well as the kind of clothes he/she wears. It deals with the majority of choices that a person makes because many of them have to do with how a person wants to be viewed. The shadow is  very closely related to the persona  because it is a culmination of all the repressed emotions, dreams,  and desires that an individual  pushes to the darkest corners of the  psyche because they interfere with the image that the persona is trying to uphold.  Jung believed that many people would become so  caught up with the false self (or the mask) that they would forget about who they really were deep down inside---which of course included the shadow.  He also thought that it was crucial to come to an understanding that the persona was not everything.  It is this understanding that would eventuallly lead to what Jung refered to as individuation.

I think it is very important to understand a little bit of Jung's theories before delving into the reason I see such a connection between Meatyard's mask photographs and Jung's psychological masks.  Meatyard often used his wife and children in his work---the majority of the time they were masked and other times they were just  blurred faces or figures in motion. It appears to me that Meatyard was trying to say something when he did these things.  The masks was not only used as a silly prop to disguise the faces of his young children but they were also a visual depiction of how individuals really do put on a mask to face the world.  It  was not only a piece of cheap plastic but rather protective gear---the fragile layer that kept the real world from truly knowing or understanding who they were.  There appears to be an odd freedom while behind the mask even though they covered up the truth.  The fact that he often used his children and wife as well as other friends also demonstrates that the role playing begins at a young age and often continues into our adult life.  People have a tendency to put on a "happy face" when in reality nothing could be further from the truth.  In the other photos that Meatyard snapped of his family the faces are distorted by movement as I had mentioned earlier.  This too helps to support my belief that he was somewhat trying to say (whether consciously or not) that we dont like being still  long enough for the external world to focus in on us.  It makes us easier to read which in turn makes us subject to vunerablity.  The backdrop in most images says just as much as the masks and blurred faces do.  Most often his models were photographed in what appeared to be condemned  and abandoned houses.  The dark corners (shadows), broken windows, and peeling walls all seem to represent the repressed emotions, broken parts, and layers of personality.  

I am not trying to say that Meatyard never took a normal photo of his family or friends.  I am sure that he did plenty of work wherein he refrained from putting them behind some guise but it is Romances that really put him on the map as well as another series titled The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater.  Each series is equally as puzzling but in that same vein---equally as unique and enigmatic.  Meatyards photographs have a timeless and eerie charism that keep me coming back to investigate something that lingers in my mind each time I look at them. They are more than just photographs...they are reflections of our own human behavior.  We all know the mask and we wear it well.  Meatyard just happened to capture it and he did a fine job if I do say so myself.



ADDITIONAL LINKS:

George Eastman House--collection of Meatyard images

More Ralph Eugene Meatyard photographs

Carl Jung Newsgroup

Pablo Neruda poem "We Are Many"
**I decided to link this poem because
it ties in very well with the theme of  masks
and identity.