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Mar
12

Exhibition: ‘Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story’ at Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Exhibition dates:  29th October 2011 – 7th April 2012

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What an astonishing photographer this man was. These photographs are a revelation. African American artist Charles “Teenie” Harris, captured “the essence of daily African-American life in the 20th century. For more than 40 years, Harris – as lead photographer of the influential Pittsburgh Courier newspaper – took almost 80,000 pictures of people from all walks: presidents, housewives, sports stars, babies, civil rights leaders and even cross-dressing drag queens.”

While Harris is most famous for depicting an innovative and thriving black urban community – daily life in Pittsburgh’s Hill District – it is the less figurative, more abstract urban landscape work that I am interested in here. Hence I have put four outstanding photographs that I picked out from the Archive at the top of the posting.

Earlier photographs of the city from the 1940s, such as Large two story home with attic, porch, double entryway, and yard, with young child on steps alone, next to smaller two story home with porches on both stories (c. 1940-45, below) have a touch of Walker Evans about them. Note how in this photograph the eve of the large two story home roof touches the top of the negative (allowing an exit for the eye at the top of the image), beautifully balanced on the left-hand side by the intrusion of the roof of another out of frame building and its shadow cast on the ground. The spatial separation between this roof and the porch of the smaller two story home is critical, as is the punctum of the child standing on the stoop. There are beautiful spaces in this photograph, as the eye plays across its surface, taking in form and detail, light and shade, eventually escaping down the right hand side of the building to the sky beyond.

It is only when we get to the 1950s that Harris really seems to hit his straps in these photographs of the urban landscape. Personally, I can’t remember any other photographs like them. By this time he has developed his own signature, his own voice. And what a voice it is!

In the three remaining photographs at the top of the posting there is a conciseness to his vision of the world, a spatial spareness, even sparseness that is very eloquent. In Construction site with bulldozer (c. 1954, below), possibly a photograph of the site of Belmar Gardens, Pittsburgh’s first black-owned housing cooperative, the landscape is shot from below up a slight incline, bookended with raised bank at left and car at right framing the image plane and holding it together. But it is the space around the central figures as they look off into the distance that is so magical – the blackened, textural ground playing off the cloudless sky with single tree at left. That space in the foreground, between the bottom of the image and the figures is tensioned so well with the distance between the figures and the top edge of the negative: Harris has an intimate understanding of what he wants to achieve in this image – spatially and narratively. The hope of the future.

The same can be said for Three story brick row houses with mansard roofs (c. 1958, below). Again, there is a spareness to his rendition of space and a complexity to his imaging of tone. It is almost like there is a dividing line between night and day, between the city in snow and the city in darkness, the ying yang of existence. Observe the light car is in darkness and the dark car in light; the dark trees, the light telegraph post; the space between the cars which no car could ever fit through; and the smallness of the child walking down the street. Incredible. Again, there is a openness to Harris’ rendition of space in Young men playing sandlot baseball with steel mill in background (c. 1955, below). Let your eyes soak in the open sky; the verticals of dark chimneys, left and light chimneys, right; the building at left perched atop the embankment; the composition of the figures across the middle of the image, reminiscent of a piece of music; the open space of the baseball sandlot at the bottom of the photograph with faint white line delineation and figure at right holding up the edge of the image. This is a master at work.

In this mature style, Harris has no need to fill space with an urban mass or congeries. These are spaces that matter, spaces of matter but these spaces are not empty, negative spaces, but active, fluid spaces, the space of possibilities. He understands what he wants to say so well, he is so confident of his previsualisation of the urban spaces of the city they become uniquely his own – open, engaging, optimistic. This is his voice, his gift, his legacy to the world – for me, not so much the portraits of Afro-American culture, but the spaces of the city as a metaphor for change within that culture. His reading of the landscape is his unique field of vision: in the stillness of these photographs time no longer passes, for the author and for the viewer. His images transcend place and, as such, like Atget before him, he deserves to be recognised as an artist who captured a changing world. Further research on this aspect of his art would seem appropriate.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

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Download the Book: Teenie Harris Photographer: Image, Memory, History (15.44Mb pdf) by Cheryl Finley, Laurence Glasco, and Joe Trotter with an introduction by Deborah Willis. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.

I am most grateful to Tey Stiteler for allowing me to pick the photographs I wanted for this posting. This help was crucial as I wanted to talk about the less figurative work in the Teenie Harris Archive. Many thankx to the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Teenie Harris Archive for allowing me to publish the photographs and book pdf in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Teenie Harris
Construction site with bulldozer, two men, including one in front holding child, large tank with hose, and car on right, possibly in construction site of Belmar Gardens
c. 1954
© Carnegie Museum of Art

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Teenie Harris
Three story brick row houses with mansard roofs, and small child on sidewalk of tree lined street with automobiles
c. 1958
© Carnegie Museum of Art

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Teenie Harris
Young men playing sandlot baseball with steel mill in background
c. 1955
© Carnegie Museum of Art

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Teenie Harris
Large two story home with attic, porch, double entryway, and yard, with young child on steps alone, next to smaller two story home with porches on both stories
c. 1940-1945
© Carnegie Museum of Art

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“Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story, the first major retrospective exhibition of the work and legacy of African American artist Charles “Teenie” Harris, will be on view at Carnegie Museum of Art from October 29, 2011, to April 7, 2012.

The groundbreaking exhibition will celebrate the artist/photographer whose work is considered one of the most complete portraits anywhere of 20th-century African American experience. Large-scale, themed photographic projections of nearly 1,000 of Teenie Harris’s greatest images accompanied by an original jazz soundtrack will generate an immersive experience in the exhibition’s opening gallery. Subsequent galleries will present a chronological display of these photographs at a conventional scale, and give visitor access to the more than 73,000 catalogued and digitized images in the museum’s Teenie Harris Archive. The exhibition will offer an examination of Harris’s working process and artistry, and audio commentary on the man and his work by the people who knew him. In addition, the photographs and many of these materials will be accessible on Carnegie Museum of Art’s website.

“Since 2001, our museum has been the repository of the Teenie Harris Archive. This exhibition marks the culmination of a long effort to preserve and document an extensive collection of historically and artistically important images,” says Lynn Zelevansky, The Henry J. Heinz II Director of Carnegie Museum of Art. “We are honored to present this retrospective of a photographer whose body of work gives so much to us.”

During his 40-year career as freelance and staff photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s most influential black newspapers, Teenie Harris (1908 – 1998) produced more than 80,000 images of Pittsburgh’s African American community. The photographs, taken from the 1930s to the 1970s, capture a period of momentous change for black Americans. His subjects ranged from the everyday lives of ordinary people to visits by powerful and glamorous national figures to Pittsburgh, the nation’s industrial center. From birthday celebrations to civil rights boycotts, the distinctive vision of Harris’s photographs folds into the larger narrative of American history, art, and culture.

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Charles “Teenie” Harris

Teenie Harris grew up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a neighborhood once called “the crossroads of the world.” A serious photographer from the age of 18, he started his professional photographic career in 1937 when he opened a studio and began to take on freelance assignments. In 1941, Harris was appointed staff photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, the nation’s preeminent black newsweekly. His images were disseminated nationally through the Courier, and played a key role in how African Americans visualized themselves.

Like the Scurlock Studio in Washington, DC, James Van Der Zee in New York, and P. H. Polk in Alabama, Harris depicted an innovative and thriving black urban community, in spite of the segregationist policies and attitudes of mid-century America. His images captured daily life in the Hill – weddings, funerals, family portraits, parades, church events, street scenes, graduations – as well as of the great men and women who visited the neighborhood, including Martin Luther King Jr., Paul Robeson, John F. Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lena Horne, and Muhammad Ali. Some of the country’s finest jazz musicians – Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Ahmad Jamal, Sarah Vaughan, and Duke Ellington – were photographed by Harris alongside bartenders, waitresses, and dancing crowds.

The longevity of Harris’s career offers an outlook on historic shifts that took place in the lives of African Americans everywhere. In the era of segregated baseball, for example, Harris photographed two legendary Negro League baseball teams, the Pittsburgh Crawfords (which Harris cofounded in the mid-1920s) and Homestead Grays. Later, when baseball’s color barrier was broken, he photographed African American major league baseball players like Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente along with their teammates. The pride and optimism evident in Harris’s photos of the Double V campaign from the World War II era (victory abroad, victory for racial equality at home), turned to growing moods of frustration and anger evident in images of militant protests in the late 1950s and 1960s. These photographs provide important insights to issues that are still pertinent today.

“Teenie Harris had great empathy with his subjects and a talent for storytelling,” says Lippincott. “His images transcend place. Powerful and personal, they connect today’s viewers with a proud past and a vibrant artistic and cultural heritage. We hope that through this retrospective and traveling exhibition, Harris will be established in the canons of art, history, and photography.”

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About the Exhibition

Nearly 1,000 of Harris’s most striking and iconic photographs will be digitally projected as life-sized images in the opening gallery. The images, organized into seven sections – “Crossroads,” “Gatherings,” “Urban Landscapes,” “Style,” “At Home,” “The Rise and Fall of the Crawford Grill,” and “Words and Signs” – will be synchronized with an original jazz score produced by MCG Jazz, one of the nation’s top organizations dedicated to the preservation, presentation, and promotion of jazz music. A second gallery will feature a chronological installation of small prints of the projected images that will include a referencing system for in-depth exploration of each photograph through a bank of computers and books also located in the gallery. In addition, the computers will provide access to the interactive website that has been created for the show.

At the entrance to the third gallery, a mini exhibition of 12 fine-art-quality 16 x 20″ prints selected by 12 experts will be accompanied by their personal analyses of the meaning, significance, and beauty of the chosen images. This gallery will also feature a large-scale map showing the places Harris lived, worked, and photographed and a multimedia presentation called “Artist at Work” that demonstrates Harris’s technical skill and artistic vision, and shows how newspapers and publishers cropped and edited his work in order to tell a particular story. “Artist at Work” marries audio recordings of the stories and memories of Teenie Harris, as told by his family, friends, colleagues, and models, with a montage of projected images relating to their tales.

In addition to an exhibition-specific website, the museum is collaborating with the University of Pittsburgh Press on an illustrated book offering new and unpublished scholarship about Harris, his work, and his times that will impact the fields of American and African American art, culture, and history.

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About the Teenie Harris Archive

In 2001, Carnegie Museum of Art acquired the Teenie Harris archive from the Harris family and began a multiyear project to preserve, catalogue, digitize, and make the images available on the museum’s website for public view. Few of Harris’s negatives were titled and dated; since the acquisition of the archive, the museum has invited the public to help in the identification of the people, places, and activities in the photographs through a series of museum-based displays of his work, outreach presentations, meetings with oral historians, and online response forms that accompany the continually growing display of images on the museum’s website.

The Teenie Harris Archive Project is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which designated the archive a “We the People” project in the spring of 2007. “We the People” is an initiative to encourage and strengthen the teaching, study, and understanding of American history and culture. Initial support for the Teenie Harris Archive Project was provided by the Heinz Endowments.”

Press release from the Carnegie Museum of Art website

Teenie Harris Archive website

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Teenie Harris
Man lying with arms crossed and ferns on his lap, in cabin of truck
c. 1940-1945
© Carnegie Museum of Art

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Teenie Harris
Wooden roller coaster, possibly at Rock Springs Park, Chester, West Virginia
c. 1941
© Carnegie Museum of Art

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Teenie Harris
Deserted Alley
1946-1970
© Carnegie Museum of Art

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“Charles “Teenie” Harris had a photographic mission: going beyond the obvious or sensational to capture the essence of daily African-American life in the 20th century. For more than 40 years, Harris – as lead photographer of the influential Pittsburgh Courier newspaper – took almost 80,000 pictures of people from all walks: presidents, housewives, sports stars, babies, civil rights leaders and even cross-dressing drag queens. Now, a new exhibit and online catalog is showing the depth of Harris’ work, an archive showing a major artistic achievement that influenced people around the country.

“His shots of everyday people are amazing. People seem to kind of jump off the page,” said Stanley Nelson, an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and MacArthur genius grant winner who has made a number of acclaimed films on African-American artists, business people, and workers. “They don’t have the sense of somebody kind of looking in and spying on the community. For me his pictures are very unique,” Nelson said.

Harris was a gifted basketball player as a young man, and helped start a Negro League baseball team, too. His brother was Pittsburgh’s biggest bookie, and that gave him access to people throughout the city. But he found his mission at the Pittsburgh Courier, which was distributed all over the country via a network of Pullman train porters. Through the paper Harris had endless opportunities to chronicle daily life and to meet the rich, famous, and powerful. Harris photographed Richard Nixon, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and many musical greats, such as Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington. “That was the black national paper of record at the time,” said Laurence Glasco, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh.

Many people stopped by the Courier offices because of its clout with African-Americans, Glasco said. Yet Harris neither pandered to nor looked down on celebrities, he added. “He really didn’t have a cult of celebrity. He wouldn’t cross a street to shake a celebrity’s hand. He was interested in them, but he really saw them as just people. And that really comes out in his photographs,” Glasco said. A young Muhammad Ali, for example, is shown picking up his mother and holding her in his arms. “He had an equal opportunity lens,” recalled Teenie’s son, Charles Harris. “He just liked people.”

The partnership with the Courier was a perfect match, since its reporters and editors were also pushing for equal rights. And true to Pittsburgh traditions, Teenie Harris was a hard worker, on call virtually 24-hours a day. “No matter what time it was, they could call. A lot of times he didn’t sleep,” his son said.

Louise Lippincott, the Carnegie Museum of Art Curator, worked closely with Harris in the last years of his life. “He had a very strong personal desire to complete a positive view of African-Americans and counter the negative stereotypes in the white press. On the other hand, there’s nothing sugarcoated,” said Lippincott. Glasco adds that Harris took pictures of very poor people without exaggerating their situation. “You can look at them and say, ‘These are real people; they happen to be very poor.’ They’re more than those clothes they’re wearing. They were first and foremost a person.” One picture shows a little girl with a big smile sitting on the floor of a newsstand, reading a comic book with a small dog on her lap. A key piece of history that Harris and the Courier covered heavily was African-Americans who served in World War II and returned home demanding that they be accorded rights equal to white soldiers, sailors, and airmen.

“The drive for civil rights really began in World War II,” Lippincott said, far earlier than many imagine. Yet the photographs are more than just a rich trove of mid-century American history. They emerge as art because Harris became a master of composition and for decades took each picture with a large-format camera that had to be hand-loaded with a single piece of film for each shot. “I remember being just shocked and amazed at what an incredible photographer he was. He just had this incredible eye,” said Nelson, who noted that Harris earned the nickname “One Shot” for his ability to deliver an assignment with one photograph.

Many of the pictures show a successful – and happy – black middle class. One young woman is depicted posing on the hood of a 1950s car, with steel mills in the background, while another simply kneels while playing with two small dogs. And even before the civil rights movement, there are many pictures showing black and white children and adults together. Glasco notes that even some controversial pictures seem to defy current expectations of what the past was like. In one, a man in a car has a cross-dressing male companion on each side.

“They’re happy, they’re proud, they’re smiling. It’s a joyful thing,” Glasco said of the men openly dressing as women. At an annual parade in Pittsburgh’s Hill district, one car was often filled with cross-dressers who waved at crowds, he added. Glasco once saw a Harris picture of cross-dressers next to contemporary pictures with the same subject, and was struck by the anger and hostility of the people in the new pictures, and the openness of the people in the older ones.

The Carnegie Museum of Art purchased Harris’ entire collection in 2001, through the Heinz Family Fund. The exhibit at the museum includes almost 1000 photographs, slide shows, and a jazz soundtrack commissioned especially for the show, which is up until next April. It’s also scheduled to travel to Chicago, Birmingham, Alabama, and Atlanta in the future. People who can’t get to one of those museums can view almost 60,000 Harris images that have been scanned and put online along with audio interviews of people who knew him.”

By Kevin Begos, Associated Press, November 27, 2011 on Boston.com [Online] Cited 21/03/2012

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Teenie Harris
Woman wearing one-piece skirted bathing suit reclining on swimming pool diving board
c. 1940-1945
© Carnegie Museum of Art

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Teenie Harris
Group portrait of two women and two men, woman on right wearing dark dress with wide brimmed hat, in interior with wainscoting and pictures on wall
c. 1940-1945
© Carnegie Museum of Art

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Teenie Harris
Group portrait of eight male boxers, possibly Golden Gloves contenders, lined up in boxing ring
c. 1955
© Carnegie Museum of Art

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Teenie Harris
Group portrait of women wearing church choir robes, posed outside in yard, with other houses, garage, and woman in background, seen from above
c. 1938-1945
© Carnegie Museum of Art

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Anon
Charles “Teenie” Harris holding camera and standing in front of Flash Circulation office, 2132 Centre Avenue, Hill District
c. 1937
© Carnegie Museum of Art

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Carnegie Museum of Art
4400 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15213-4080
T: 412.622.3131

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Saturday: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Thursday: 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Sunday: noon – 5 p.m.

Carnegie Museum of Art website

Teenie Harris Archive website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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