New interest in the disquieting, fascinating photos by Meatyard

It's relatively rare that a neglected photographer of significant quality or stature from even the very recent past will emerge to view these days. Photography's gold mine of forgotten master photographers is almost depleted - thanks to the mad search precipitated by the dramatic upsurge of interest in all things photographic, and the medium's recent deserved elevation to the status of a fine art.

A few such individuals do, however, still make their belated appearance. Some have never achieved any recognition. Others have known a few years of considerable success before slipping into relative or nearly total obscurity.

Among the latter was Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925-72), a fascinatingly enigmatic and elusive photographer whose works are the subject of a major exhibition at the Prakapas Gallery here.

Meatyard's photographs evade easy classification. At first glance they seem almost surreal, and yet closer examination reveals little of surrealism's bitter , nihilistic undertones. They are disquieting and paradoxical, and yet they also partake of a subtle lyricism that places them closer to the constructions and collages of Joseph Cornell than to the stark graphic or painterly confrontations of Edvard Munch or Max Ernst.

His masked children, blurred figures, and ambiguous formal relationships, do call forth memories of certain images by Francis Bacon and Hans Bellmer, but only obliquely, and without in any real way touching upon their own unique identity and quality.

His interest in the writings of Camus, Rilke, Kafka, and Blake should provide us with some clues as to the origins of his art, as indeed should this statement by photographer and curator Van Deren Coke: ''Ralph Eugene Meatyard's work is undoubtedly visionary, but takes place in settings that are realistic. Objects lose their innocence and take on not before known connotations. . . . He draws the curtain back on scenes that recall the pageantry of a class play we were left out of in the first grade, late night movies seen only half awake, or moments of stark reality we thought had been dismissed from our minds.''

Meatyard himself said that ''photography should be experienced like music,'' that his own works needed to be studied deeply, since ''I never will make an accidental photograph.'' He also described himself as a ''primitive'' photographer, as an artist whose only desire was to please himself.

Be that as it may, he also managed to please quite a few others during his relatively short career. At the time of his passing, roughly 900 examples of his work were scattered among American galleries, exhibitions, and publications, and he was also sufficiently well known to have one of his photographs grace the cover of a major art magazine - no mean achievement in the days before the current photography boom.

And yet, in less than a decade, his reputation plummeted. He was almost never represented in historical survey exhibitions, and very few of his works could be seen by the public.

Things are beginning to pick up, however. A major retrospective of his work was held in London this past summer, and collectors are once again showing serious interest in his work.

I'm not at all surprised. There is something quite remarkable about the small , subtly enigmatic photographs with their haunting suggestions that things are never quite what they seem. His world of children wearing masks, dolls acting out human roles, ominous dreamlike landscapes, and disquietingly ambiguous objects is very closely related to ours - and in a strange way, illuminates it.

At the Prakapas Gallery, 19 East 71st Street, through Dec. 17.

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