He made his subjects feel beautiful. The kind eyes with which he saw them made them feel comfortable in their own skin. As a photographer’s daughter, I want to honor my dad’s work and show the artistry behind it, as well as tell the story of an interesting and complicated man who was, in many ways, larger than life.
Being raised primarily by my father was both an amazing and an interesting experience. The lessons dad taught me include: how to work on cars (every girl should be able to change a sparkplug, replace a flat tire and rebuild a transmission), how to use directions (north, south, east and west – one should never give directions by landmarks alone), that women are capable of doing anything, and that you should always be able to take care of yourself. For my father, independence was the ultimate virtue.
I also learned from my dad how to talk to any person in any room, how to be creative, and the importance of an entrepreneurial spirit. When I was 11, my dad decided to quit his relatively comfortable job selling soap and dispensers to hospitals and restaurants in order to pursue a new-found passion for photography.
A self-taught photographer and dark room aficionado, my dad bought his first camera in the mid-1970s on a bit of a dare. His girlfriend at the time was modeling for a local talent agency and showed my dad some photos a local photographer had taken. My dad thought he could do better, so he bought a camera (a Nikon, of course), and with his girlfriend as his muse, he produced beautiful images that led her friends to ask him to photograph them as well. He began hitting the pageant circuit to drum up more clients and, before he knew it, he had a small studio in a hole-in-the-wall behind the old Brook Theatre in Tulsa. His dark room also occupied the only bathroom in our tiny apartment! It took my dad a few years to break into the pageant world full-time, but he eventually became the official photographer for the Miss Oklahoma pageant in the mid-1980s. Over time, he largely cornered the market for pageant work across the state and region. He enjoyed his career as a pageant photographer for more than three decades, until his untimely death in 2010.
It has taken a decade for me to get here, but I am now ready to write about my father, to explore his work, and to honor his life. This step forward came rather unexpectedly, spurred by a conversation at an art show a few years ago. Sitting next to a photographer at the show’s opening, we began to talk about my father’s work photographing pageants. She surprised me by saying that she thought I was sitting on a treasure trove of material to explore, display and document. I had thought about collecting dad’s beautiful photos and stories from his life into a book, but I had never contemplated an art show. But my new acquaintances sprang into action, researching information on similar projects and brainstorming ways to archive my dad’s work and present it in an exhibition. One of them urged me to write about my dad—to document my feelings about him, about our relationship and about his work, as well as my thoughts on pageantry, beauty, and the roles and expectations of women. More recently, I have been collaborating with artists to work toward a grand exhibit of my father’s photography that is both aesthetically exciting and appealing to all the senses. I cannot wait to see how it develops!
As a photographer’s daughter, I want to honor my dad’s work and show the artistry behind it. I don’t think dad really thought of himself as an artist – he was just making a living doing something that he was passionate about. But his photographs are stunning. He made his subjects feel beautiful. The kind eyes with which he saw them made them feel comfortable in their own skin. Because my father saw his models as their best selves, he captured them in a positive light in which they might not have otherwise been able to see themselves.
The images will showcase the history and evolution of pageants in Oklahoma and the surrounding area over a two-decade period. I hope that the project inspires thought and conversations about hard work, following your dreams and to what extent, if at all, we can reconcile beauty culture, pageantry and feminism.
Stay tuned to www.jimgrillot.com for details. I can’t wait to share dad’s work, examine his impact and explore his pageant photography in a new and creative way.