I first met Hugh Grannum decades before I had the honor of working with him. We were in a crowded Ypsilanti gym covering a basketball game together. I was the young photographer, star-struck by getting a chance to speak with the veteran shooter, an icon in Detroit journalism.
During halftime, we sat in the bleachers and he politely engaged me in conversation and I felt as though there was no one else around, just Hugh and I having a chat. He was like that with everyone. Our mutual friend Kathleen Galligan said, “When you sat with him, Hugh had a way of making it feel like it was just you and he in the room.”
That must have been the case with me because I remember exactly what we talked about. I suffered from migraine headaches and Hugh said he had a similar affliction with cluster headaches. Who talks about that sort of stuff during halftime? Hugh does.
While the kids were in the locker room readying for the second half, we touched on other topics including race and what it took for him to be a black photographer. He said he felt sometimes as though he had to be even better than everyone else in order to feel accepted.
God Hugh, you were so much better as a person already. Even before you shouldered your Domke bag, powered up your flash or chose a lens. Our profession was infinitely elevated having you as part of it. I hope you felt that way.
Through the ensuing years I remember bits and glances at the man. One time he was at a book signing in Birmingham with another mutual friend, Jeffrey Sauger. I wish you could have seen him engaging all the people that stopped to talk. Sauger, quoting another colleague and friend, Kyle Keener, repeated that Hugh was The Gandhi of Photojournalism.
For some crazy reason, one of my favorite conversations with Hugh was when I had the pleasure of finally working with him. I was a picture editor at the Free Press and Hugh had an assignment to cover Aunt Mid’s produce in Detroit. I had the pleasure of sitting there, scrolling through his pictures, as he was telling me about his routine, ordinary assignment. I was spell-bound.
In front of me was a local Detroit vegetable processing facility and next to me was Hugh Grannum, photo legend. And we were talking about spinach. His pictures showed a bunch of white foam on the floor and Hugh launched into an explanation of how it kept away any germs as the workers walked from room to room. I saw conveyor belts and bagging machines and just a bunch of other mundane items, but it was Hugh’s narrative that I couldn’t get enough of.
I think it was his voice. Galligan related recently that Hugh had a way of bringing the pressure of a room down about a thousand percent. And as I think about it, I’m coming to the conclusion that our friend’s impact on everyone around him may even be as great a legacy as his photography.
When I heard that Hugh was felled by the exact same disease that I fought, it made me furious. Leukemia is a terrible killer and it has taken too many of my friends and colleagues. I hadn’t gotten enough of the man. I hadn’t had my fill of sitting and talking with one of the warmest, most compassionate people I’ve ever met on this planet.
And then I found the above Rodney Ferguson project on Vimeo and I felt a bit of a smile creep across my soul. There was Hugh, once again, and it felt like he was sitting next to me in his tweed and beret. I could have one last listen to an amazing human being.
Another good friend, Cassandra Spratling, wrote a wonderful tribute to Hugh on the Free Press website. Make sure to read what she had to say and click through Hugh’s marvelous photo gallery showing Detroit as it was and as it is.
On the video, Hugh says as a photographer, “I walk into your home, up front telling you my story, so you would open up and tell me yours and then I can capture you.”
You can rest easily Hugh, you captured all of us. Gently and powerfully.