“Style is where you find it …”, these words stood out when starting a journey through the past, looking at the storied history of photographer Melvin Grier in his own words and pictures. Style I suppose is where you find it, out in the world not just in the glossy pages of magazines and newspapers. That may be where it ends up … but style, fashion, trends, or whatever word you may use to describe it, begins and ends with people.
And not just the people in front of the camera. An acclaimed photojournalist, Melvin Grier worked at the Cincinnati Post for 33 years. While his assignments ranged from Business to Sports, he did occasionally shoot fashion and you can tell from the opening letter that starts the Clothes Encounter exhibit that it was his fashion photography which allowed his creativity to flourish. “It’s not like shooting a baseball game or a fire, where you take it as it comes. With fashion, you can control what you want to show to the public.”
Grier has never done an exhibition focused on his fashion photography to this magnitude and we are lucky enough to be able to see some of his work for the very first time.
While a simple exhibit, it was impactful. The sparse space – a white, rectangular room with photos simply mounted on the walls – allowed for a real focus on the work. Each photograph hung with a handwritten description underneath, straight from Grier’s own recollection of each photo shoot. Whether it was a planned fashion shoot with Mary Linn White at the Cincinnati Post or a session for a model’s portfolio, one thing was clear. Grier seized the opportunity to create fashion wherever he could and captured parts of Cincinnati often unseen. He noted especially that he would scout fashion locations while he was on assignment for other desks at the Post. If he happened upon a great locale, it would serve as a backdrop to a future photo shoot when the time was right.
And many times, the location was perfect for exactly what they had in mind. Photographing a holiday dress in front of the stone work from the old reservoir in Eden Park. Shooting a gray suit set among an electrical conduit seen through an open loading dock door. And a personal favorite, capturing the caftans at McAlpins in the busy crosswalk where 4th Street meets Race Street downtown. The list continues …
“It was a simple process. We never had an art director, thank God. We never asked permission to shoot somewhere – we just did it. ” Well said by the man himself.
Many often think fashion is only available in the great capitals of luxury: New York, London, Paris, etc … Not so. Just take a look at the 1980s and 1990s fashion brought to life through the lens of award-winning photographer Melvin Grier.
In addition to his eye for locations, he also had a keen sense of using props (or what was already in place) to elevate the clothes themselves. A red and green plaid dress with an architectural cut in the back went beautifully with the squared hedges once found at Forest & Washington. Apparently, the bushes that replaced those hedges did not offer the photographer that same level of inspiration. Need to photograph a gold dress? Try placing it next to an armed Wells Fargo Bank truck and guard. Or punch up a horizontally striped dress with contrasting stripes in the background thanks to McAlpins’ gift boxes.
The end of the exhibit saw a look at a note from Mary Lynn to Melvin, showing the connection the two had from working together for years. You can tell from the running commentary throughout the room that there was an unspoken magic in the work of Grier and Mary Linn White, a longtime reporter and fellow fashion enthusiast at the Cincinnati Post.
It also highlighted a bit of Cincinnati fashion history with shopping bags, gift boxes and hat boxes from Cincinnati’s well-known department stores of the past like Gidding-Jenny and Shillito’s. This served as a great tie-in with the Behringer-Crawford Museum as they have a section on the rise of the department store in Northern Kentucky as more people moved to the suburbs in the 1950s.
With many opportunities to see extraordinary work from photographers of all stripes during FotoFocus, do not overlook traveling to the top of Devou Park to see Clothes Encounter. The retrospective serves as an opportunity to see Melvin Grier’s work in a whole new light and truly gives the stories behind each photo taken.
With the advent of mass media, it’s so easy to see a photo just for what it is, not for the work that it took to create it. From the initial idea discussed in the halls to the Cincinnati Post to bringing it to life among the everyday happenings in our fair city, every photograph – fashion or otherwise – has a story behind it. And it includes a little bit of every person involved in its creation.