A Gorge-ous Take on the Unforeseen Wilderness

Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s photography of Red River Gorge returns to the Speed Art Museum


By Ella Treinen
Photos by Ralph Eugene Meatyard


The Red River Gorge blesses Kentuckians with sparkling waters, sandstone rivers and majestic rock formations, but thanks to the Speed Art Museum, you won’t have to travel far to appreciate the Gorge’s natural beauty. From August 6 to February 13, the Speed is sharing the gift of “Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s The Unforeseen Wilderness.” The exhibition will feature the Speed’s collection of photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s images published as part of an effort to preserve the Red River Gorge in 1971. While visitors will likely be experiencing these photos for the first time, they aren’t strangers to the Speed Art Museum’s walls. The images were on display in 1971, just as Meatyard’s portfolio of these works was completed. 

“In many ways, it feels like these photos are coming home, so it’s a wonderful celebration of Meatyard’s work in that regard,” said the curator of the exhibition, Kim Spence.

When the photos were exhibited for the first time, the unique features of the Gorge were in danger of being lost. The effort to preserve the Gorge dates back to 1962 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received approval from Congress to build a dam and reservoir along the Red River in East Central Kentucky. The dam intended to control flooding in the area while the reservoir would provide water to Central Kentucky and Lexington, Meatyard’s hometown. As local and regional residents, as well as environmental preservationists, began to recognize the devastating impact the dam would have on the Gorge and its endangered species, a wave of opposition began to form. At the forefront was American Novelist Wendell Berry.

In 1971, Berry published a series of essays advocating for the preservation of the Red River Gorge. The book was accompanied by Meatyard’s photography, giving a visual representation of the natural wonders in jeopardy. 

Meatyard captured the hidden surprises within the landscape which might only be spotted from a hiker’s perspective. “He’s really guiding us, not only through the Gorge, but he’s guiding our visual experience through the Gorge, drawing attention to these little details that you might miss from a distance,” said Spence. 

Spence described one particular photograph where Meatyard finds light in the darkness. The photograph reveals a tiny trickle of water flowing over the terrain. A little highlight of light dances on the water, in contrast to surrounding deep shadows. This detail and intimacy are carried throughout all 56 photographs included in the portfolio. 

As visitors accompany Meatyard on this hike through the Gorge alongside the river, deep into the woods and up to the top of the ridge, they may get the sense that this type of work supported Meatyard’s entire career. However, Meatyard is better known for eerie images of dolls and children wearing masks, this portfolio being a standout from his body of work. 

The exhibition will showcase both Meatyard’s photography and Berry’s texts to immerse visitors into the whole experience of the Gorge itself. The exhibition will also be a part of this year’s Louisville Photo Biennial, which allows visitors an opportunity to view captivating photography throughout the region.

“Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s The Unforeseen Wilderness” is bringing the beautiful photographs of the Red River Gorge not only home to the Speed, but to Meatyard’s home in Kentucky as well. “We always think of him as being one of the great photographers of Kentucky,” said Spence. “As Kentucky’s largest and oldest art museum, I think it makes perfect sense for us to be the repository of the portfolio.”

Speed Art Museum
2035 South Third St.
Louisville, KY 40208