FotoFocus Report: Lexington’s Camera Club has a legacy to rival UK sports teams

The club members drew photographic inspiration from their own Southern surroundings, having fun, pushing themselves and supporting one another as they tried new things.

click to enlarge Ralph Eugene Meatyard, "Untitled," 1964 - Photo: The estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
Photo: The estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
Ralph Eugene Meatyard, "Untitled," 1964
Lexington and Wildcat madness are inexorably linked, so much so that the walls for a FotoFocus exhibit springing from that city are painted in shades of the University of Kentucky’s signature blue and white. (The Cincinnati Art Museum confirms this was a conscious choice.)

However, Kentucky Renaissance honors something other than basketball titles. The rest of the exhibit’s name is The Lexington Camera Club and its Community, 1954-1974. Its members formed a less-celebrated team, but they, too, built an impressive legacy.  Cheers to the art museum’s departing photography curator, Brian Sholis, for using the FotoFocus Biennial to call our attention to it. Even if you prefer shooting hoops to shooting pictures, see this crowd-pleasing exhibit that’s uniquely Kentucky. The club members drew their inspiration not from New York or Chicago but their own Southern surroundings and one another.   

The exhibit logo on the floor of the gallery’s entrance mimics the half-court branding of a basketball arena. The camera club’s roster encircles a silhouette of the commonwealth. For many visitors, perhaps only one name will stand out — that of Trappist monk Thomas Merton, the writer and peace activist — but on the blue wall facing the doorway, we meet all the men in portraits the friends took of one another. These were for the most part amateur photographers whose day jobs included press operator, publisher and professor. 

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, who emerged as the club’s leader in the 1960s, showed the group’s work in his optical shop. Dr. Zygmunt Gierlach, who experimented with taking pictures not just with a camera but also medical equipment, used the waiting room of his radiology lab as a club gallery. Today some of those photos fetch thousands of dollars.

The takeaway from Kentucky Renaissance is an appreciation for a group having fun, pushing themselves and supporting one another as they tried new things. Van Deren Coke, who guided the club in the 1950s before becoming a curator in New Mexico and San Francisco, encouraged members to take photos close to home and of everyday life. Otherwise, they didn’t try to adhere to any artistic philosophies or styles. 

The exhibit is divided into places, people and experimentation. Shadows and sunbeams reach out and embrace the details of midcentury life in the Bluegrass State: A cap holding sunglasses and dentures atop a diner table, flowered wallpaper, a cane-back chair and a clothesline on a latticework porch.  Outdoors, the men were inspired by overgrown vines, abandoned barns and foggy mornings. While his metropolitan counterparts turned their lenses to skyscrapers and subway lines, Coke captured the Bible Belt in a 1963 newsstand photo reminding patrons “Thou Shalt Not Steal” a 15-cent newspaper copy.

Guy Mendes, one of the club’s youngest members (and one of two still living among the 10 featured in the exhibit), ushers in the 1970s with photos of a smiling senior citizen rooting for Richard Nixon and Captain Kentucky, the hippie alter ego of Ed McClanahan, the  Northern Kentucky novelist who was one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. 

Checking out the photographers’ experiments with Op Art, reverse images, diamond shapes and other tricks feels a little like taking in a slick Harlem Globetrotters game rather than a college hoops matchup.  I appreciated the club members’ wizardry but missed the purity of their other photos, which capture a sense of place. I sensed the influence of the bigger art world creeping in amid the Kentucky kudzu. 

In a panel discussion Oct. 19 about artist-led communities, curator Sholis spoke with counterparts Elizabeth Siegel of the Art Institute of Chicago and Jessica McDonald of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. In Chicago, midcentury photographers learned from Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind at the city’s Institute of Design. McDonald spoke about curator Nathan Lyons and his influence as associate director at the Eastman House in Rochester, New York. But Lexington didn’t have such institutions or icons guiding photography — just a club for amateur shutterbugs who enjoyed an easy kinship as equals. Even with Coke and then Meatyard, who died in 1972, guiding the group, there was no ‘I’ in this team. 


KENTUCKY RENAISSANCE: THE LEXINGTON CAMERA CLUB AND ITS COMMUNITY, 1954-1974 continues through Jan. 1, 2017 at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Ticket required (includes admission to Van Gogh: Into the Undergrowth). More info: cincinnatiartmuseum.org.

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