Meatyard was born in Normal, Illinois and raised in the nearby town of Bloomington, Illinois. When he turned 18 during World War II, he joined the Navy. The war ended before he received any overseas assignments. After being mustered out, he briefly studied Pre-Dentistry, then turned his studies to becoming an optician.
After his marriage, he and Madelyn moved to Lexington, Kentucky, to continue his trade as an optician, working for Tinder-Krausse-Tinder, a company that also sold photographic equipment. The owners of the company were active members of the Lexington Camera Club, for which the Art Department of the University of Kentucky provided exhibition space.
Meatyard purchased his first camera in 1950 to photograph his newborn first child, and worked primarily with a Rolleiflex medium-format camera ever afterwards. He eventually found his way to the Lexington Camera club in 1954, and at the same time joined the Photographic Society of America. It was at the Lexington Camera Club that Meatyard met Van Deren Coke, an early influence behind much of his work. Coke exhibited work by Meatyard in an exhibition for the university entitled “Creative Photography” in 1956.