Grillo came to photography early and he approached it seriously and studiously. As a boy, he wanted to learn all he could about the art and craft of taking pictures. He consulted the Book of Knowledge encyclopedia. He asked his parents for a camera. His high school had an extensive darkroom, and he mastered the technical elements of photography.
In college, he began dabbling with masks and layered negatives, which allowed him to play with textures — a sky with the texture of a brick wall or skin like tree bark. Today, people do that in PhotoShop all the time, but back then, it was cutting-edge.
It was also the reason why Grillo decided to abandon photography, albeit temporarily.
“People would pick up my work and say, ‘Wow, how did you do this?’” he says.
“At that point, I realized the photos were meaningless. I had gotten so skilled in the technical aspects that I didn’t have a whole lot to say. So I went on with my life merrily as an art historian and dropped it all.”
Fifteen years later, after he had earned his Ph.D. from Cornell University, Grillo realized that his study of art history had given him a lot to say.
“I found that photography allowed me to work through a lot of ideas that were very core to me in the 14th- and 15th- century history of art or 17th-century Dutch painting, in a way that would complement the way I write about these things,” Grillo says.
It also has informed how Grillo teaches students who have lived their entire lives with access to inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras and cell phone images. By examining the choices made by painters in the 14th, 15th or 17th centuries, students gain the analytical skills they need to understand contemporary imagery — whether it’s a photograph by Grillo or a spread in a fashion magazine.