White People: A Retrospective (Review)

Exhibit shows depth of Melvin Grier’s photojournalistic work


ne of the things that made the late Cincinnati Post so good — and made it so important to the city — was its background as a blue-collar, afternoon newspaper. While its morning competition had to struggle to resist seeing the city solely through wealthy establishment eyes, the Post had a natural sense for Cincinnati as experienced by all its citizens. For better and worse, as the fortunes of the working-class (and, by the way, of afternoon newspapers) declined in post-industrial Cincinnati, the Post could capture some heart-wrenching portraits of people on the fringes.

Melvin Grier, a photojournalist for the late, lamented Post for some 30 years, was responsible for quite a few of those portraits. A retrospective of his work, much of it in classic black-and-white but several in color, is at the Kennedy Heights Arts Center through June 11. The show is called White People: A Retrospective, because — one presumes — as a black man, Grier didn’t take for granted the places to which his assignments gave him privileged access.

And if there’s irony in the title, there’s also irony at work in some of these images — sometimes it’s evident in the actual visual composition; sometimes in the stories behind them. For instance, the image that the Arts Center is featuring on its postcard looks deceptively, straightforwardly cheerful (and very white). A crowd of middle-aged people, sitting outdoors in white lawn chairs in what appears to be a stadium, is laughing and smiling. It’s a beautifully composed shot — most folks are wearing light clothing, but just enough men have on dark clothing to give it a checkerboard effect.

Here the irony is double-edged. The crowd is at a 1987 concert by the singer John Davidson, who doesn’t historically have a huge African-American following. But also, ask Cincinnatians about Davidson and pretty quickly someone will remember he performed at Beverly Hills Supper Club the night of the 1977 fire that destroyed the Northern Kentucky nightclub. Here, 11 years later (the photo doesn’t identify where the concert occurred), he’s able to bring joy again. Time heals.

One of the most bitingly ironic of the B&W photos actually features African Americans in a prominent role. Called “Colonial Color Guard Parades Through Downtown,” the1985 shot features several white guys wearing Revolutionary War garb — including tricolor hats and wigs — involved in some kind of ceremony. To me, it looks like the kind of ceremonial ritual for people who use their pride in America as an excuse to dress up and parade rather than to discuss and question what could be better about their country. But that’s subjective and I could be wrong.

However, one reason I read the photo that way is because of Grier’s choices. It’s cropped to cut off the tops of whatever flags they are carrying; it deglamorizes their costumes by focusing on the wrinkles in their pants. And in the shot are several black passersby, including a woman warily eyeing them. She is a stand-in for us.

There’s one black-and-white photograph here reminiscent of Diane Arbus’ work; it’s called “Man With Bible & Flag” (no date provided) and it features a young man, hair brushed downward and overcoat covering most of a sweater and turtleneck, cradling a little flag and Bible like they are a lap dog. Weird enough, but those big glaring eyes (underlined by dark creases) and that cryptic smile have a big creepiness factor.

Other black-and-white photographs elicit great empathy for their subjects. In a strongly composed shot (and remember, photojournalism captures its images on the fly), someone’s face is peering out from a small slot in a prison-like door as three well-dressed men walk in front. This 1975 image is entitled “Cincinnati City Officials Tour Longview Mental Hospital” and one of the officials looks like Tom Luken. What’s so powerful here is that only one of three officials has seen this mysterious man. We catch him looking toward the door (and away from us); all we get of his face is a sidelong glance of one eyeglass lens. Overall, this photograph is about how we see and especially how we see the presence of mental illness in our community.

In a less serious vein, there’s a 1970 street portrait of a woman that would make Garry Winogrand envious. It’s of the infamous, super-endowed stripper Morganna (the Kissing Bandit) wearing just a hot-patterned skimpy bikini while walking down the street as a police guard flanks her. What’s so appealing here is her youthfulness and the way her smile brightens her face. At the time, Morganna was seen as trashy by proper Cincinnati society — she ran onto the field at a Reds game to hug Pete Rose once. But Grier finds her humanity; her delight in being alive. In this photograph, we are not just voyeurs staring at her boobs — we are her.

WHITE PEOPLE: A RETROSPECTIVE is on view at Kennedy Heights Arts Center through June 11. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.

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