It took years, but eventually Jymi Bolden persuaded Melvin Grier it was possible to be both a photojournalist and a fine artist.
Bolden was a student at the Art Academy of Cincinnati when he worked during the 1980s as a photo intern with the already seasoned Grier at The Cincinnati Post, and that’s when the persuasion began.
“I go back to the mid-‘80s, when Melvin thought of his work and what he did as just being newspaper photography,” Bolden recalled recently. “That’s what he used to tell me all the time.”
From Grier, Bolden learned journalistic photography, which he later would put to use as photo editor for CityBeat. And Bolden, director of the non-profit Art Beyond Boundaries gallery in Over the Rhine, is proud to have introduced fine art to Grier’s lexicon.
“I used to tell him, ‘Look, newspaper photography is all good, but see, the next day they’re wrapping garbage in that newspaper. And what good is that for such great images that you’ve created?’” Bolden says. “Put stuff together, and put it on a wall.”
To the benefit of the Greater Cincinnati art scene, Grier has taken that advice.
Grier says he used to tell Bolden, “Being an artist? What the hell does that mean? I’m a photographer.”
“But we would have this discussion and it got to the point where I decided, ‘It’s OK, you can be an artist, you can be an artist,’” Grier says. “So I started showing my work more, and I think I’ve made the transition to being very comfortable being in the art world also, as long as it makes sense.
“Now,” Grier adds with his gravelly voice, “some of the stuff that they’ve got out there makes no sense to me. And they call it art. But it’s sort of like being a photographer now. You know how you get to be a photographer? You call yourself a photographer. Nobody will challenge that. What do you do? ‘I’m a photographer.’ You can’t say, ‘I’m a doctor. I’m a lawyer.’ You can’t say, ‘I’m a plumber.’ But you can say, ‘I’m a photographer.’ It’s sort of like the cliché, ‘Well, I’m working on a script.’ But it sounds good. And I run into that. Somebody will introduce somebody else and say, ‘So-and-so is a photographer.’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, let me see your work and I’ll be the judge of that.’“
The witty and contemplative Grier, who retired from journalism in late 2007, the day The Post closed, hails from the old school of photojournalism. He remembers when USA Today changed everything with its extensive use of color photographs. He remembers shooting the same NFL football games with two types of film – color and black & white.
“Try shooting a football game in black & white and color,” Grier says. “Because invariably, the one that they wanted in color was in black & white. That was cured to some extent when we went to color negative film, because you could go both ways with it. But we were shooting color transparency film – slide film – which notoriously has a limited latitude. You’ve got to hit that exposure almost dead on the money. And those were the times when you thought about, ‘Maybe I need to get a different job.’”
He says that now, but listening to Grier’s excitement about his many journalism adventures, there weren’t many days when he would have traded his career for anything else.
Through his glasses in a dimly lit Over the Rhine coffee house, his eyes glimmer as he recounts memorable moments one after another, even those when he wasn’t holding a camera in his hands. Like the time, during Super Bowl XVI in 1982, when he and a pilot were taking off in a chartered plane from Michigan with film, so they would make The Post’s deadline….
“We’re going down the runway, and the plane is skidding,” he says. “And the pilot is going, ‘Whoa, plane. Whoa, plane.’ That was wonderful.”
When he says wonderful, he means it.
“One of the best assignments I ever went on here in Cincinnati did not make for a good photograph,” he says. “They sent me up to a nursing home on Reading Road in Avondale. And it was one of these deals where a woman was celebrating 100 years, or whatever. They had a cake. But somebody started singing Amazing Grace, and all these people started singing Amazing Grace, and it was just so emotional. And it was like, God, this is great I get to hear this.”
Another highlight: “And then going to Africa for the first time, you get on the plane, and the whole crew is black. Never seen that before,” says Grier, who himself is black. “You get off the plane, and almost all the people are black. You’re in the majority.”
There were plenty of assignments in his career when Grier was the only African-American in the room, and many area homes he suspects he was the first black person to enter.
“I think, if I’m not mistaken, I was the first black photographer to work for either newspaper,” he says. “But I did not get bothered by that, because that could drive you nuts. To me, I was just a photographer. And all I was concerned with was making as good of photographs as possible, for a very important reason: I always felt if I did not succeed, it might make it more difficult for the next black person to get a job, because they might say, ‘Well, we tried with this one guy, and he screwed it all up.’ I always had that kind-of pressure on myself. Now, it did get kind-of old going places and being the only black person. It’s sort of weird. It really is. And from time to time a white reporter would say they had to go to such and such, and it’s going to be all black people. And I’m like, ‘Well…’
Grier’s daughter, Samantha Grier, 31, herself became a news photographer, with absolutely no pressure from him to do so, and worked several years for the Journal-News in Hamilton before becoming a freelancer.
And at one point, (Samantha) said, ‘Hey, Dad. Everywhere I go, I’m the only black person there,’” he says. “And I thought, ‘After all this time? Still?’”
That gave him an idea for a record-setting exhibit at the Kennedy Heights Arts Center. It was called, “White People: A Retrospective,” and featured white people in all kinds of situations he had photographed through his career. A public-radio station from the Netherlands interviewed him about it, asking, “Why are you having a show about white people?”
“It was not like making fun of people, or anything. It was just people,” Grier says. “Because in reality, people are the resource of a photojournalist. Because I don’t shoot trees, and rocks, not that there’s anything wrong with it. But I shoot people, and people doing things.”
Grier’s son, Miles, is an English professor and Shakespearean scholar with a doctorate at Queens College in New York.
Bolden says Grier’s work has its own style.
“Not only did his photos inform you like a journalistic photograph, but they were also provocative – had that quality to make you think, had that quality to incite feeling, and that isn’t necessarily a requirement of journalistic photography,” Bolden says.
He adds: “Melvin’s work always had those additional facets, which brought his work, for me, into a realm which in fine art terms is considered documentary – at least documentary, and potentially narrative, and the story goes on.”
His work was impressive enough that he twice was named Photographer of the Year- once by the Ohio News Photographers Association and another time by the Cleveland Press Club for medium- and smaller newspapers. Grier also is a member of the Cincinnati SPJ Journalism Hall of Fame and that of the National Association of Black Journalists’ local chapter.
Even closer to his heart, he also was named the region’s best photographer by Cincinnati magazine, where years earlier, while working in a local printing office, he shot halftone images for the magazine before working for the Post. During that printing work, he would gaze at the magazine’s photographs and think, “I can do that.”
Cincinnati and the World
Grier was born in 1941, in Cincinnati’s General Hospital, and raised in a tenement in the West End. A nun at his school suggested he might make a good priest, so he attended the Sacred Heart Seminary.
“I was in there for three years,” Grier says. “And then it was suggested, rather strongly, that that was not my vocation. So I finished up at DePorres High School,” in the West End. Around that time, he wanted to be a Jazz drummer, and played gigs around town. He landed a janitorial job with the Shubert Theater.
He joined the Air Force in about 1961, and served for four years, including in England, where he picked up his love for photography.
“Because I was stationed overseas in England, you could order equipment from Japan at a really, really nice price, but it took forever to come,” Grier says. “So I ordered a camera and a couple of lenses and just started shooting. It wasn’t my job, it was my hobby. But I entered a contest in the military newspaper, Stars and Stripes. Well, I got lucky, and I won a first place and a second place. So that made me feel like maybe I could actually…” do this, for a living.
In the Air Force, he worked in delivery rooms and nurseries, caring for infants. He remembers working in an English hospital ward, “and we’re seeing people being hosed in Alabama, we’re seeing people being attacked by dogs in Alabama, and you’re kind of wondering, ‘I’m serving my country, and this is what’s happening?’”
He also remembers having to sit on the floor of a taxi cab on the way to his military base because the white driver could get into hot water being seen driving a black passenger.
After returning home, he worked about a year as an assistant to Cincinnati photographer Austin Bewsey before he worked eight years shooting half-tone images for Young & Klein Lithographers. While there, he started Terra, a well-received but financially unsuccessful photography magazine that increased his connections within the local photo world.
“As luck would have it, and it was really incredible luck, I was on my way to the convention center, and I was standing on the corner of 5th and Elm,” Grier says. “And a woman named Mimi Fuller just happened to pull up. The light was red. And she knew me from the magazine that I had started, and she said, ‘Hey, Mel, there’s going to be an opening at The Post. You ought to apply.’ And I’m thinking if I had been maybe five minutes later, or five minutes earlier, I never would have known about it. It’s just weird.”
Mimi Fuller was one of the first generation of Post photographers Grier worked with after being hired in 1974. He quickly clicks off names of many great photographers he has shot for The Post, including, most recently, Bruce Crippen and Patrick Reddy, who now works for The Enquirer.
A Different Approach
While in England with the Air Force, Grier also gained a lifelong appreciation for English gardens and fashion photography, which germinated from his reading of magazines like Queen in libraries.
“And of course there was Vogue and Bazaar, and I started looking at the photographs,” he says. “Then I started looking at who shot the photographs. And then I started getting interested in photojournalism, and I would see names like Gordon Parks, Henri Cartier-Bresson, W. Eugene Smith. So I thought I wanted the best of all worlds. I didn’t want to get in a box.”
Grier shot his share of fashion with The Post, another fond memory.
“Fashion photography was something I loved doing because there was a woman there in the features department, named Mary Linn White, and she wrote the fashion. And we started getting a good working relationship. So I would go up to her desk, and I would say, ‘What are you working on next?’ And she would say, ‘I’m going to work on spring coats.’ So I would start thinking about spring coats, and where we could shoot it, because we didn’t have a budget, and then we would make the arrangements and get the models,” Grier says.
“She was so much fun to work with because she never second-guessed, and you couldn’t come up with an idea too weird that she wouldn’t go along with,” he adds. “Which is very important.”
Once, he shot fashion on the roof of Union Terminal. Another time, it was on 4th Street downtown, after he timed the traffic lights to see how much time they would have.
That shoot began in the McAlpin’s store downtown, but the store was too busy in the background, so they tried the Skywalk, which also didn’t work.
“And I looked down at Fourth Street, and I said, ‘Hey, Mary Lynn: Why don’t we shoot this in the middle of Fourth Street?’ And she had a real sort-of funny laugh. So she laughed, we got a chair, took the model, we went down, I timed the stop light, for how long we were going to have to do it. I walked out with the model, I set the chair down, she sat down, I turned around, shot it before traffic would go through. We went back and did that several times. So that was fun.
He shot two Super Bowls, and in a non-newspaper assignment, shot from the Goodyear blimp. He shot the 1990 World Series and more basketball than he would rather recall. It’s nearly impossible to shoot an iconic basketball image, he explains.
Today, he’s getting great pleasure from gardening – many of his plants he starts from seeds at his South Avondale home, where he lives with Brenda, his wife of 46 years. He’s currently focusing his lens on Jazz, another love of his life – aside from his family, gardening, photography, and the Cleveland Browns.
Grier once even managed to create a sort-of fashion photo from an NFL assignment when he captured the Browns’ Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield walking on Cleveland Municipal Stadium’s turf in fur coats before a Bengals’ game. He also shot one of the most heartbreaking series of events in Cleveland history – the game-ending “Drive” by John Elway and the Denver Broncos in the 1987 AFC Championship Game.
As the fourth quarter wound down, ““I’m thinking, ‘Oh, man, Cleveland’s going to the Super Bowl!” he says.
“Well, yeah,” he says, dolefully, reliving that crushed dream.
Something good did result from that, he says: With his shot of Denver kicking the game-winning field goal, “I had the exact same shot that Sports Illustrated used on their cover,” he says. He and that photographer later became friends.
A Post reporter once told him he couldn’t go to foreign lands working at the Cincinnati paper.
“Why not?” Grier replied. He visited numerous countries for the paper, including Cuba, El Salvador, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia and Vietnam.
“I was pretty much the guy that (Editor) Paul Knue would say, ‘What hellhole do you want to go to next?’ Because it was so interesting. So different. It smells different, it looks different. I never dreamed I would be able to do that stuff. So I think that’s what has defined my career. But I never wanted to do just one thing.”
“I love looking at photographs. Any kind of way I can see them,” he says. He subscribes to magazines with quality images, including LensWork and Vanity Fair, “because Annie Liebovitz is one of their photographers. And plus, I get to see people live a lifestyle that I don’t have. So I can see how things are in the Hamptons,” he explains.
There’s something else Grier does these days, other than exhibiting his work and serving on boards FotoFocus (he’s also a trustee on the Cincinnati Park Board and was on the Robert Duncanson executive committee at the Taft Museum of Art): Grier encourages news photographers to exhibit their work.
“I’m always saying, ‘Show some of your work, show some of your work.’ Because nobody has as good of work as a newspaper photographer. There’s so many things that they do well. Particularly the more traditional guys. Now you’ve got some photographers, all they want to do is shoot sports, for some reason that I don’t understand.”
Grier smiles inside when he realizes that photography – along with his wife’s work – paid for everything in his house, plus fed and educated his now-grown children.
“I think of it in terms of The Post, but I always think that I gave The Post the best years of my life, and The Post gave me the best years of my life,” he says. “So it was a mutual thing.”
EXTRA BONUS: Mel’s Advice for Selfie Nation
Grier doesn’t advocate taking selfies, but he is on Facebook, and he cringes at some of the poorly taken self-shots. So much so that he offers this piece of advice to those who must indulge in capturing themselves with their own camera phones.
“I’m still not a big fan of selfies, but I understand that it’s fun, and it’s people out with their friends,” he says. “I just wish that I could convince the people that shoot selfies that no one looks attractive, shot from a low angle. It doesn’t work!”
Here’s a news photographer’s view you should use: “It’s always best to shoot someone straight on or from a higher angle. Every now and then I will put something up on Facebook, ‘For the love of God, would you stop?’ Particularly, say, people who are of generous proportions, should not be photographed from below. You can make people look intimidating by photographing them from below, as a design thing, but by and large, it’s not a good thing.”
–By Mike Rutledge