Blurring time 

Raymond Meeks’ Missoula debut

Raymond Meeks looks puzzled to hear the word “timeless” applied to his photographs. It’s an adjective one quickly pins on the muted, dreamlike scenes captured in Meeks’ current photo exhibit at Gallery Saintonge, A Gathering. But what exactly, he wonders, does “timeless” mean?

It could be something in the tonal range of the film, he muses—the photos are black and white, inscrutable shadow to bright white, and Meeks admits he’s drawn to the graphic nature of a subject “stripped down to its shape and form.” It could be in the Civil War-era lens he used to capture his daughter in his backyard in Hamilton, the old glass causing the landscape to swirl around the edges of the glass plate as he watched from under the darkcloth. Or it could be the simple definition of the word itself—without time, impossible to locate within any familiar era—because that young girl jumping in the street, the bare fallen tree in a frozen pond, and the crumbling pillars and stone quarries all look as if they could have been photographed yesterday or 50 years ago.

However he defines it, the timelessness of Meeks’ work, captured in portraits of churchgoers and crows, childlike joy and weary Burmese laborers alike, is prevalent throughout his exhibit. But Meeks is still reluctant to put a finger on any overarching description.

“I’ll think I’ve left everything behind,” Meeks says, referring to his work. “I’ll try to do something new—change cameras, use lenses with soft effects, use a digital camera—and my wife will say, ‘It still looks like [your work].’”

Meeks traces his love of photography back to a week he spent with his grandmother in Columbus, Ohio, where he grew up. After days of making traditional Italian sauces together, it dawned on Meeks that “there were no good pictures of her. She was 76 years old, and there were no good pictures of her.”

So he went out and bought a used 35mm camera and some cheap film and began making black-and-white images in a darkroom in a closet of his rented house. Meeks taught himself photography, he says, by “opening a lot of books.”

As a freelancer based in New York City, Meeks illustrated stories and published photo essays in Outside Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. Commercially, he’s photographed ads for Nike and Timberland, and album covers for artists including k.d. lang. But since Meeks moved to Hamilton with his wife, son and daughter seven years ago, this sort of work has been scarce. He’s not surprised: he knows in the commercial art world you’ve got to be in a big city to be on the radar. The lack of freelance work has given him time to focus on his true passion: creating art books out of used volumes and poetry picked up at secondhand stores.

“I love the smell, the feel, the design of books,” he says. “You can take an idea and if you do it right, it just explodes.”

A Gathering is the only occasion on which Meeks has shown his work in Missoula; he’s primarily internationally and in New York. Although he says he sometimes longs for a city, Meeks loves the open space, the mountains and the “whole pioneer idea of the West” that Montana embodies.

It’s not this natural majesty of the West that he looks to capture, though. That, he says, has been done. “It’s too pretty,” he says. “It’s the last thing I want to photograph… it’s too refined, too beautiful. It’s solved. It’s done…there’s nothing that tugs at you and asks you to understand it.”

Instead, Meeks turns closer to home—to his family, his dog, the cottonwoods in his backyard—for inspiration. “It’s the pulse that makes a photo living,” he says. “You set your lens on something and you know it’s evolving, it’s still going to change.”

In a series of photographs included in A Gathering, originally taken for the fashion magazine Exit, his wife Mary Ellen stands in a grove of trees, the dark of the branches fading into the almost blinding white of the designer gown. The shots came candidly, Meeks recalls: “I asked her, ‘Sweetheart, what have you got going today?’ She said she was pruning and I said, ‘Great. Just prune.’”

He adds: “You have an obligation, a responsibility to get it right [when you’re photographing family]. You can’t claim to be naïve when it’s your own wife or your own daughter.”

With an upcoming show in Paris, a second book soon to be published and an “exploratory” photography trip to Greenland later this month, Meeks admits he’s still restless. But wherever he is, his photos will always come back to what he holds closest, whether it’s through a 19th-century lens or a soft-light filter.

“If you’re a writer, they tell you to write what you know,” he says. “I photograph what I know. It’s the same philosophy.”

Raymond Meeks’ A Gathering is on display at Gallery Saintonge through Thursday, Aug. 31. The gallery is open Tuesday through Friday 10 AM to 5:30 PM, and Saturday 10 AM to 4 PM.

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