From 1961 to 1965, Melvin Grier was a medic in the U.S. Air Force. He was serving in a maternity ward on a base in England when he picked up a copy of the military newspaper Stars and Stripes and discovered that he’d won a photo contest. It was the first time the West End native felt encouraged that there might be a future for him behind a camera.
Back home in Cincinnati, Grier—a self-educated photojournalist—went on to have a sterling career at The Cincinnati Post, beginning in December 1974 and retiring the day that the newspaper ceased publishing in December 2007. His three decades on the job won acclaim from UPI, the Associated Press of Ohio, the Society for Professional Journalists, and others. He covered stories from El Salvador to Somalia, and his work appeared in everything from Time to Sports Illustrated. But the way that Cincinnatians know him best is through his images of our city and its people—simple, thoughtful, eloquent, wholly unfettered slices of life. We asked him to share some of those photographs with us, along with his memories of how it all began.
Melvin Grier: After I got out of the Air Force, I got a job working for photographer Austin Bewsey as an assistant. He shot products in a studio on Fourth Street. And I discovered real quick that I didn’t like shooting merchandise—didn’t like lighting things, because it required a certain discipline that I don’t have. So what I would do is, I would get out on the weekends, get on a bus—I didn’t drive—come downtown and go up to people and say, “Can I take your picture?” I would shoot just people doing things.
Austin ran out of money to pay me. At the time, the Enquirer had the Sunday pictorial section. I saw some of Danny Ransohoff’s work in it. [Ransohoff, who worked for United Way, documented life in the city’s blighted neighborhoods.] And I thought, Man, this is what I would like to do. So I got up the courage to go see Danny. His office: chaos. I hand him my little portfolio, such as it was, and he looks through it and he looks at me, and he says, “Now, I’m a whore. But you are an underachiever.” I will never forget that.
We talked and I said, “Look, I need a job.” He happened to know Ben Klein at Young & Klein Printing. He said, “I’ll talk with Ben Klein and see if I can get you an appointment.” Which he did.
My job was cameraman. I shot halftones and line work. So frustrating to see other people’s photographs. So in 1970 I started my own magazine, since nobody else would publish me. Champion Paper gave us the paper; Young & Klein printed it for us. It was a magazine that we called Terra—and it was a beautiful thing. It had to be shipped in a box. It cost us $2.50 a copy, and we charged $1.75 for it. There were three issues.
After about eight years at Young & Klein, my wife Brenda got finished with her schooling. I said, “I want to quit.” And she said, “You go right ahead.” God bless her to this day. She taught me how to drive, and I bought a Volkswagen.
Because we had started the magazine, I had met Mimi Fuller; Mimi was a staff photographer at The Cincinnati Post. One day I’m at the Convention Center waiting for the light to change, and Mimi saw me and said, “Hey Mel, there’s going to be an opening at the Post.” I went over there, they hired me, and that was it. If I’d been standing on any other corner any other time—I don’t really want to think about it.
I have such respect for any African-American who is first at anything. Because I felt that I was setting a standard that if I didn’t succeed—if I failed miserably—it would reflect on anybody that came after me. So I had this real need to be successful. I went to a newspaper that was very structured, very old school. This was back when we still wore white shirts and ties. We were in 800 Broadway, in that beautiful building. We had presses; you could smell the ink in the building. It was like, Wow! Wow! Wow! But then you realize—you better realize—that you’ve got to produce.
I think the first thing I ever had published in the Post was of a water main break on Eighth Street right before you go on the viaduct. That was no prize-winner, I want to tell you. One of my early assignments was to photograph [the Cincinnati fashion model] Bobbie Corbean. She had just come back from Scandinavia. It was funny because my initial aspiration was to be a fashion photographer, but then when it came time to do it, I was extremely nervous. But it worked out OK.
Another one of my early assignment was an interior at the home of a woman who lived on Grandin Road. In those days I had a serious Afro. I mean, it was serious. I liked to say that there were things living in it. And they send me out there and I go to the front door and ring the bell and [the reporter and homeowner] came to the door. I could be wrong but I swear [the reporter’s] jaw dropped when she saw me. But I went in and said, “Well, I guess this will make a good picture. And I guess this will make a good picture.” And it worked out.
You go out and make the best photograph you can make, and if it’s really good you run it as big as you can. And then you do that again the next day. That’s the formula. That’s all there really is to it. It’s such a simple, beautiful thing.
Photograph by Melvin Grier
Originally published in the October 2011 issue.