Photo studio closing after decades in West Virginia

BLUEFIELD, W.Va. (AP) — It’s a cold winter’s day in Bluefield as David McNeil strolls through his storefront on Bland Street.

From the retail area to the framing workshop to the historic negative closet, it progresses with determination and passion and, perhaps, a bit of melancholy reflection.

Picturesque and historic images shine behind the windows of the iconic company, Grubb Photo.

It bears the name of its founder, the famous photographer Melvin Grubb.

McNeil was his longtime associate.

For decades, the two men documented the history of the region.

But Grubb died on February 14, 2018.


And now McNeil is retiring.

It is, according to all the accounts of the inhabitants, the end of a picturesque era.

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Grubb, a pilot, was known for his aerial photographs that recorded the development of southern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia.

Asked about a photo of Burke’s Garden during this newspaper interview, McNeil was quick to praise his mentor for his courage, courage and skill.

Tazewell County’s iconic community was no easy photo op.

“Mr. Grubb always considered it a challenge because he had to get his plane near maximum altitude,” McNeil said. “You had to shoot from 12,000 feet and this Piper Cub was not designed for go much higher than that.”

And Grubb always had to go to the Cub alone.

Bluefield’s urban legends mirror the stories of Grubb opening the door of his plane and dragging to the side in an effort to capture the best images.

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A World War II veteran, Grubb went to photography school on the GI Bill, then returned to Bluefield and started working in photography, McNeil said.

“Grubb Photo dates back to 1948,” McNeil said. “He may have worked for the newspaper before that, but the physical location dates back to 1948.”

At first, Grubb was developing films for local pharmacies and the newspaper.

The business started in a location above Southern Office Supply, then moved to Raleigh Street on June 9, 1955.

It was a day before that when McNeil, a permanent resident of McDowell County, was born in Bluefield on June 8, 1955.

McNeil is a Northfork native who also lived in Powhatan and, after getting married 10 years ago, moved to Upland.

Grubb Photo was known for photographing historic local events, but also family celebrations such as weddings, birthdays and class reunions.

McNeil said the last wedding Grubb photographed was his.

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While local residents always greeted Grubb as “Mel” or “Melvin”, McNeil always referred to him as “Mr. Grubb.

“It was a sign of respect,” McNeil said. “I started working for him when I was a senior in high school.”

McNeil recalled that sometimes he keeps thinking Mel will walk through the door of the company.

“I hear the doorbell ringing on the door and I still think maybe it’s him saying, ‘It’s just me. “

McNeil said the last aerial photos taken by Grubb were of the old bakery along Route 52 about two weeks before his death.

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McNeil started working for Grubb in 1972 when he was a senior in high school.

“I would come in after school and help Mr. Grubb and then do homework for the newspaper,” he said.

At that time, the workshop and the newspaper were side by side.

McNeil always wore a coat and tie at this time, and he recalls an incident when he was working closely with Grubb as he opened a box.

“He was going to open a box with a nested knife, and Mr. Grubb opened the box and cut the lining of my jacket.”

McNeil met Grubb when he bought him his first camera.

“I used to come and ask him about my photos,” McNeil recalled. “I had installed a small darkroom in my room. I had plywood covers to put over the windows.

In 1972, McNeil said Grubb called him and offered him a job.

“I actually worked through that winter and into the spring,” McNeil said. “Then someone told him I wasn’t 18 yet. He had to fire me until I was 18.”

McNeil said Grubb Photo is the only job he’s ever had.

“In 2005, when Mr. Grubb decided to retire, he sold the business to me,” McNeil said. “He said I could still use the name.”

“Gentleman” is the term most used to describe Grubb, McNeil said. “He taught me from the start what was right.”

McNeil said when he returned to work primarily focused on digital photography. “Impressions were a big part of what Mr. Grubb did.”

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While Grubb is known for documenting historical events through photography, McNeil was always by his side, setting up the lighting, cameras, lens, and camera angles.

“We tried to hit everything that was going on in the area,” McNeil said. “We were a good team. It got to the point that I could almost read his mind.

McNeil said he did a lot of the studio work because Grubb liked to get out there and take aerial shots.

However, when it came to underground coal mining, McNeil was always there with his mentor.

Any spark could potentially set off a mine explosion, and Grubb pioneered flash technology for taking pictures underground.

“The first time I went into a coal mine with him he was still using the M2 flash bulb, it was the size of a standard 60 watt household bulb,” McNeil said. “Any heat would set it off.

“I remember holding the reflector and pushing back, waiting for the flash.” said McNeil, leaning back in his chair as he mimicked the anxiety of those early days.

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This year marks McNeil’s 49th year in the photography business.

He noted that previously there were usually 20 photos from a wedding. Now, with digital, it’s 200 to 300 photos.

“When I started, a wedding album base was 12 photos, Knock on wood, I’ve never lost a marriage,” McNeil said, discussing the many mishaps that can occur while shooting. silver.

While work could bring anxiety, it also brought pleasure.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” he said, “especially doing pictures for the newspaper.”

Scrolling through past photographs, McNeil held up a photo of Bubbles — an orange stray cat who showed up at the studio in the 1970s and stayed there for years.

Grubb was known to be an animal lover.

“A woman came in with fur cuffs on her coat. The bubbles attacked him,” McNeil recalls amusedly.

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The Grubb-McNeil tag team was a decades-old institution in Bluefield.

At the end of February, there will be no more.

In preparation for his retirement, McNeil is currently selling the store’s inventory, including a plethora of well-known prints.

“It’s the end of an era,” McNeil said, referring to the advent of cellphone photos and the challenges of the COVID crisis. “You can’t fight progress – if it really is progress.”

But, in terms of professional photography, he said: “It’s something I’ve been doing every day for about 50 years.

“At one point, Mr. Grubb and I photographed 78 weddings in a year,” McNeil said. “I always felt like we were doing a service.”

Regarding retirement, McNeil said quietly, “It will be different.”

Jack C. Nugent