REFLECTIONS | WINTER ’21
AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL APERTURE—GRIER’S DIRECT, COLLAGIST PORTRAITURE
WORDS by MALEKE GLEE
IMAGES by JEREMY GRIER
Grier bridges eased and invitational looking through trusting engagement. There is something to be said about Grier’s maneuvering of equipment, the draped black cape he prefers to guide light and focus on the images, and the sitting time that may exceed fifteen minutes. For someone to not be overly distracted or dismayed by the preparation process, there is something else more powerful holding their interest. There is a broken barrier for a stranger to welcome this nomad hulling equipment, and then agree for their image to be captured, not knowing the form and function of its finality. There is trust. The experience of Grier’s practice is heightened after a conversation, learning more about the sitters, most of whom are strangers in his hometown of Hartford, Connecticut.
After a diagnosis of COVID-19 in February, Grier traveled home to Hartford, Connecticut, from Brooklyn, New York. Given the urgent circumstance and pre-existing contentious dynamics between Grier and memories attached with home, this was not a trip met with great expectation. However, what was found and worked for has pronounced some self-affirming attributes of Hartford perchance overlooked.
Grier left Hartford for New York to explore a career and love, both seemingly missing in his hometown. As a same-gender-loving man, Grier most remembers cultural homophobia more so than acts of tenderness, platonic or otherwise, between men. In his return home, Grier has found new queer communities; and newfound and deeply informed appreciation for the love bestowed from his family. The effects of COVID required caretaking, and in those moments of less movement, less busyness of mind and body, Grier observed his family from a new space of acceptance, for fleeing was not possible. He had no choice but to view, engage, and ponder. His visual-emotional gaze also lent itself to Hartford broadly, as new social dynamics needed to be established. Both in the home and on the street, it was with a unique circumstance, requiring a different way of viewing, that pronounced beauty, and possibility.
Grier describes his most recent body of work as “autobiographical,” which one might not consider upon first or returned viewing. In the majority of his photographs, Grier’s body, and those more intimately connected to him, are absent, pushing against expectations of autobiographical portraiture. I believe the aurotic is Greir’s imprint rather than his figure. It often takes trips back, altered eyes to view the basis, the interwoven elements of an environment—upon first gaze, familiar and obvious look back. Upon intentional, continuous looking, new layers appear.
Through photography, Grier pieces together elements of the self, assembling a body from gathered bodies, gestures, clothing, environments—varied but all gazing to and from centered confidence. The gaze of the figure and their stylized self-adornment offer more information about the environment. Both background and figure inform the totality of the image and its symbolic apparatus.
Grier’s work in street portraiture and domestic space privilege realism and thus the humanity of the sitters. Their gentle, relaxed expressions exist because, to some extent, they are without the harsh studio lights and the artificiality embedded within that arena. These street sitters do not present perfected bodies; they are not always available to flesh, sheen, or gloss.
A studio setting, wherein the sitter is a guest, carries embedded significance and histories that inform our ways of viewing. The studio asserts an intention, premeditated, thus rehearsed and performed expectations are captured in stills, leaving the present to past projections. In that space, while full of visual potential, there lives a hyper-vigilance from all parties, all having something at stake, something being unveiled in that present moment.
In Grier’s images, the gaze is significant given that the subjects exist within exploitation paradigms, even from collaborators operating from a Black Gaze. Black working-class urban landscapes and Black male nude photography are fraught with histories of exploitation and exotification, guised under romanticism but captured under dynamics and modes of view entirely limiting. Grier’s sitters are not on display. Grier’s subjects look with authority and naturality, which may remove a fourth wall or pronounce it, depending on the visual politics of the viewer. At home or merely a few steps, bus or car ride from home, the sitters are likely comfortable, feeling safe in the familiar.
There is intimacy in the gaze and posture. We feel as if we are looking through one’s eye, not the camera’s aperture. This is seen in Nyhzere, documented while confidently pumping through the North End of Hartford. Nyhzere upholds self-regard and maturity as guided through generations ahead of him, embodied and inscribed within this shot. The Louis Vuitton bag and shorts, and the cap askew—with a twist, reflect the hybrid high-low, masc-fem presence of Black gay men. This is not often the image in our cultural and visual lexicon which privileges a binary. At his age, he is likely in the space of in-betweenness, gray, exploration. The black and white photo holds gradience and depth, adding to the time and consideration of viewing.
Nyhzere holds onto a fence, outside of it. He is on the sidewalk caught amid movement but finds reason to pause and pose for the request. What attracted Grier’s eye to Nyhzere was his existence in the environment Grier has known as violently homophobic. Nyhzere’s femininity was not hidden even if threatened. Grier’s viewing is also a revisiting of his occupancy of fourteen, what was possible, and what was required for safety. Nyhzere stands out like a concrete rose caught in spring bloom.
There is a hypervisibility and consumption of Black queer life and culture, a fixity that centers, even in its methods of rejection, the heteronormative gaze, intrigue, and ignorance. Grier’s depictions of queer lives provide space for often the unseen, acts most quotidian, and expressions most subdue. He captures the non-performance of living, not under surveillance or for anticipation of applause.
The absence of the fantastical, the en vogue mode of presenting and defining Black queerness, allows room for relation. Viewers may relate to this range of subjects who exceed limiting and privileged, socially attractive bodies often cast to encapsulate queerness. In collective cultural lexicon, Black men are queer if deemed legible, and signifiers deeming legibility are commercially viable and predictable. Through media, queer experience becomes memetic, with symbologies of identity more reliant on exclusive biological and classed aesthetics, rather than lived experience. There are no flower crowns nor wings required to receive regality, beauty, and ethereal grace. Here, More Gay Love in the Hood, Tobias and Michael are queer, in self-defining function.
In the chapter “Representing the Black Male Body,” bell hooks offers a critical observation that Black men are taught to be “more body than mind” in her seminal text, Art on My Mind. This focus on physicality is reflected in photography, which privileges Black male bodies with bulging penises and muscles. Black male bodies in nearly all forms of media are dealt with seriously when fitting expectations of scale, of muscular or penial grandeur. The body is always made to feel active and a screen for social projections. On feminization, hooks refers to the social history of women in media and art, wherein their bodies become objects with embedded values and voids for constant, expected looking without value returned.
All that said, the canonical ways of viewing and rendering images have some hyperbolic relevance in Grier’s practice. Grier’s diptych Untilted evokes a still or ad from early gay-ebony genre pornography in both its body posture and color gradience. Juxtaposed against the rear-facing shot, there is an interesting connotation in the facial expression, one of direct gaze, but emotionlessness. There is certainty in the gaze. Our gaze, presented first with legs open to center framed penis, conveys an availability and authority of sexual aptitude. The penis, flaccid, is still given visual priority. In this positioning within the image, the penis is most active, competing with the symmetrical head and face. One is privileged over the other, and perhaps emphasizes the frequent iconography and social treatment of Black male bodies.
The second image is encoded with meaning, the body face down in complete reversed posture, is clothed. Now laying on his stomach, back to the sky, we see no face. We see less body. The center lines guide to the bunching of jeans and elevation of glutes. This orifice, unlike the phallic frontal image, is deemed more taboo in the sexuality of men. This juxtaposition reflects interpersonal dynamics with sexual positions and the gendered expectations of “top” and “bottom.” The latter assumed submission and femininity, antithetical to traditional masculine values. This hierarchy in viewing is even expressed in the upward angle of the camera, looking down upon the jeaned bottom. In thinking about these two images, I am confronted with an observation held commonly amongst Black gay men, that one cannot be masculine and boldy, assertively availing themselves to entry, albeit bodily, emotional, or spiritual intrusion. For such requests of intrusion and the pleasure found therein require some level of layering, of discretion, as seen through the absent face and article of clothing in Untitled. Intrusion is different from display; there is more self-accountability in the former, something masculinity has not required or swiftly rejects. Perhaps my reading is too obvious, but it is informed by personal history and the pornography these images reference. The bottom-up, clothed, and anonymous reflect the shame of anal pleasure and the lack of its discourse.
I am taken somewhere else in my viewing of Grier’s photos, relating to new and old thoughts brought to the fore. Willie peers out of the window of his apartment. He is receiving the warmth of the sungrazing his face. The face and the mind with an inward fixation, as implied by the shut eyes, are central to reading this image. Grier’s photos allow me to view out while looking in, to see myself through the other. Willie is eased, seemingly in solitude. Grier’s images are the warmth into my face, illuminating within areas unmasked and remembered.
MALEKE GLEE is a Washington, D.C.-based curator, writer, and cultural worker. Maleke obtained his M.A. in Cultural Sustainability from Goucher College and B.F.A. in Arts Management from Howard University. Maleke is the Executive Director of STABLE, an artist studio, and gallery space. He has held positions for the Studio Museum in Harlem, Prince George’s African American Museum; and has produced exhibitions and programs with the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, Red Bull Arts, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, No Longer Empty, and more. His curatorial and writing practice focuses on contemporary Black art, specifically abstraction, performance, and the evolving terrain of the digital world.
JEREMY GRIER (b. 1994 Hartford, CT) is a photographer whose work and practice fit into the lineage of portraiture while exploring the beauty and subtleties of blackness in his world. He is a 2016 graduate of Southern Connecticut State University with a BS in Communications.
Grier moved to New York City from Hartford, Connecticut to pursue his career in photography. Since his move he has shot client work for The North Face, Reebok – Pyer Moss, Chromat, The Highline and has been featured on various publications like Fashionista.com, Broccoli Mag, 10 Men Magazine, and Vogue Magazine.