WHITE PEOPLE: A RETROSPECTIVE Photographs by Melvin Grier

Quite a lot is going on in the engrossing exhibition of Melvin Grier’s photographs at Kennedy Heights Arts Center.. One narrative line is this city, reflected in a daily newspaper over a period of more than thirty years. Another has to do with the photographer himself, a black man recording the affairs of a city that never lost sight of itself as white. The show’s title, White People: A Retrospective, comes from Grier’s recognition of a career spent as the odd man out. Again and again, he was a black man photographing white people.

Melvin Grier was a photojournalist for the Cincinnati Post from 1974 until his retirement in 2007, when the paper ceased publication. These pictures were taken within the time constraints of daily journalism, a bind that never seems to have hampered Grier in turning out telling photographs that often have the hallmarks of art. That is to say, their composition is elegant, their technical qualities excellent, and they encourage the viewer to think, a sometimes forgotten element of good art.

Thinking is encouraged in this exhibition by Grier’s pictures and also by written commentaries on whites seen by blacks from author and teacher Kathy Y. Wilson. Early in the planning of the show Grier talked with Wilson, telling her how it was shaping, and asked that she write a text to go along with his pictures.

Wilson is an equal opportunity social commentator, ready to hold up silliness to the light wherever it springs from – I have read her disparaging  the sartorial habits of young black men – but here she focuses on her more usual subject, white people, even as Grier found himself doing for over 30 years.  Wilson’s three piece suite of text is mounted in an auxiliary gallery and unsparingly holds up a mirror to white obtuseness. It’s possible to look at Grier’s photographs and see them as a general observation of the human comedy, but Wilson is precise. White folks are silly, dishonest, and self-satisfied.

“She’s edgier than I am,” Grier says, but In the gallery neighboring Wilson’s text it’s easy to find photographs that bear out her words. We see patriotism at its goofiest: a donkey dressed in striped trousers; a black woman and Colonial Color Guards in tri-cornered hats looking aghast at one another; a young man with an idiotic smile clutching both Bible and flag.

The photographs, hung in three rooms and a hallway, are linked loosely by theme rather than date, indeed some are not dated at all. The dates can be interesting. It was 1975, for instance, when Grier shot a group of men who seem to be official visitors, if uncomfortable ones, at Longview, then housing the insane. They in turn are being observed by a resident, whose eyes and nose can be seen in a slot through a probably locked door.

The Center’s galleries, once the first floor rooms of a generous private house, accommodate  photographs well. Walls are quietly gray or yellow and the handsome woodwork is painted white so that these photographs, most of them modestly sized, are well presented. All the prints are new. The show was curated by Jymi Bolden, himself a one-time photojournalist who learned from Grier. “He was my mentor,” Bolden says. Now  director of Art Beyond Boundaries Gallery on Main Street, Bolden planned a thoughtful hanging for the Kennedy Heights show.

Grier’s first cut was all black and white, but others convinced him that color photographs should be included. He admits to a sneaking preference for b&w, but went along with it. This brought the count up from “more than 50” to “over 60′ works on view. The color photographs  appear in the hallway and among them are extraordinarily moving records of our war-stressed times: soldiers come home, sometimes alive or, sometimes, not.

Perhaps inspired by planning Grier’s show, early this month Bolden put together a retrospective of his own photographs and life drawings. The brief exhibition at Art Beyond Boundaries deserved to be seen longer.

My own pleasure in Grier’s work is often in responding to the beautiful, seemingly happenstance perfection of many compositions. A snake being groomed in St. Bernard in 1994 is an unlikely subject for a striking picture, but there it is. A photograph at the Drop In Center is both mysterious and sad. Sheriff Simon Leis with a drug-sniffing dog on leash is seen in an oddly lyrical composition, brought up short by a woman’s pulling back. A painter at work in downtown Cincinnati leans from his ladder with ballet dancer grace to reach his mark.  Happenstance is not what produces these works, however. An unfailing eye does it.

That eye can also see the humor in the subject:  golfers in argyle and plaids seem costumed rather than dressed. and a tractor is ignominiously rescued by a team of noble-looking horses.  “Zeke the Camel Walks at Newport on the Levee,” is a surprising sight made more so by a cafe umbrella sporting the name Guinness. No need to go thirsty here.

The title panel for the exhibition says, beneath White People: A Retrospective, Photography by Melvin Grier, “Observe. . . Compose. . . Capture. . . Move On” – the news photographer’s bywords. Grier’s retrospective suggests he thoroughly understands all of the above. If his message in the photographs is not so pointed as Wilson’s in her text, his reason for inviting her participation must have been to round out his photographs.

Grier’s race is not the only thing setting him apart from his subjects. Artists are often social commentators, observers whose act of observation removes them from the life around them. Black or white, Grier was destined to be an odd man out, and Wilson as well. Anyone who reflects on society in words, with a camera, or whatever, has stepped aside from the general run of humanity to comment on it, and so become that odd man out.

-Jane Durrell

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