Exhibit of 987 Teenie Harris photos tells the story of life in Pittsburgh during the 1930s-'70s
October 26, 2011 4:00 AM
Teenie Harris, holding camera and standing on sidewalk, c. 1938.
Boxer Harry Bobo, 1941.
Herron Avenue at the intersection of Milwaukee Street, Hill District, c. 1938-1945.
By Mary Thomas Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Prepare to be transported to another time and place when you visit "Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story," opening this weekend at Carnegie Museum of Art.
And you might want to wear your dancing shoes.
Charles "Teenie" Harris, who was born in Pittsburgh in 1908 and died in 1998, was a photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, a leading black newspaper with a national reach. For 40 years, from the 1930s to the 1970s, Mr. Harris photographed celebrities and politicians. But he also photographed everyday life in Pittsburgh's Hill District -- a thriving African-American community -- ultimately documenting a vibrant period in both a neighborhood's and a nation's history.
The Carnegie, which is keeper of the Harris archives, is exhibiting 987 of those images in a welcoming presentation that draws visitors into Mr. Harris' world.
"We're staying out of the way. We didn't want to put the museum between the viewer and the images," said Louise Lippincott, Carnegie curator of fine arts and exhibition project manager.
In the introductory gallery, visitors pass between wall-sized photographs of Mr. Harris, taken in the early 1950s, and a Hill District street scene circa the 1940s -- and then step into an era.
Seven constantly changing projections play large on the walls of a darkened room accompanied by a jazz soundtrack composed by MCG Jazz for the exhibition. Surrounded by music and imagery that morphs audibly and visually through the decades of Mr. Harris' work, it's hard to stand still while looking, a forgivable shift in usual museum decorum.
"We want to immerse people in his life," said Shannon Harvey of Stowe Nash Associates, who was finessing the synchronization of music and pictures. He is one of many outside contractors who have contributed to this unique exhibition.
The Manchester Craftsmen's Guild group based its composition on the Pittsburgh jazz sound from 1935 to 1975. "Sounds you would have heard at the Crawford Grill at that time," Mr. Harvey said.
The projected images are organized into seven subject groupings, each about 24 minutes in length: "Crossroads," "Gatherings," "Urban Landscapes," "Style," "At Home," "The Rise and Fall of the Crawford Grill" and "Words and Signs." While most are specific to the Hill District and predominantly of African-American life, they quickly become relatable, even nostalgic, for anyone who has been proud of a family member in uniform, joyfully whipped around in a pedal car, gathered to hear President John F. Kennedy speak, attended a wedding or any of the everyday activities that marked American culture in the middle of the past century.
All 987 images are presented three ways: projected, digitally printed and via computer. If the projections are encompassing, the in comparison modestly sized digital images, hung several deep and chronologically around the walls of the second gallery, invite intimate viewing. Each is numbered and visitors may look them up at a bank of computers in the center of the gallery to access archival information (a printed version is available for those who prefer to not use the computers).
A final gallery holds a dozen fine art quality, 16- by 20-inch prints made from Mr. Harris' negatives for the exhibition. Twelve individuals who were affiliated with the show in an advisory capacity were invited to each select a favorite photograph and tell why it was a great image. A wall map traces where Mr. Harris lived and worked. And a multimedia presentation, "Artist at Work," combines a slide show of his images coordinated with oral histories by family, friends and colleagues who comment on his life.
The snippets in "Artist at Work" reveal the man behind the images, "a Courier icon," whose pictures "would write the story" by themselves. Someone who knew how to work his way in and out of a courthouse to get a picture before relatives of the defendant got riled, knew how to turn around a photograph in his darkroom and get it back to a nightclub before the couple he snapped moved on, and "was always clean as a bean."
The Carnegie has in essence been working on this exhibition for 10 years, since the museum acquired the Teenie Harris archive from the Harris family in 2001. With almost 1,000 objects, the exhibition is huge by museum standards. But Harris' lifework comprises approximately 80,000 negatives most of which were not titled or dated. For a decade, no fewer than two and at times six full-time staff worked with the negatives. By spring of this year, 73,800 negatives had been cataloged, 57,760 had been scanned, and all are were made available through the museum's online collection search, www.cmoa.org/teenie. These numbers take form in stacks of Mr. Harris' negatives boxes displayed within a case in the second galley.
Work won't end when the remainder of the negatives are scanned. In the 1970s, when he was no longer with the Courier, Mr. Harris switched cameras and began shooting in color, and those negatives haven't been touched. "That's another 10-year project," Ms. Lippincott said.
In the meantime, the museum has been learning more about Mr. Harris, and hopes to solidify his legacy within art, history and photography canons as the exhibition travels after its Pittsburgh closing. Venues in Chicago, Atlanta and Birmingham are already signed on and a goal is that the show will be picked up by more institutions.
"People think of him as nonpolitical, but he was following everything. Political events, demonstrations, marches -- he was always there, and supportive," Ms. Lippincott said. "He was photographing constantly and went from place to place and job to job and seemed to know everything that was going on."
The museum has also been examining Mr. Harris' aesthetic side. "To what extent was he a self-conscious artist and to what extent was he just a guy doing his job?" she asked.
The Carnegie has held a series of smaller exhibitions to introduce Mr. Harris' work to a wide audience and to ask for help in identifying individuals and places in the photographs. Ms. Lippincott is quick to praise the input received to date from casual visitors and from those who have taken on more formal roles.
"In addition to paid staff, Pittsburgh's African-American community has been really great in coming in and telling us who's in these photographs. They are all volunteers and we couldn't have done this without their input, so it's a real community project."
'Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story'
Where: Carnegie Museum of Art.
When: Noon Saturday through April 7.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, until 8 p.m. Thursday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Admission: $15; seniors $12; students and children ages 3-18, $11; under age 3 and members, free. Includes Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
Events: "Revealing the American Story: Personal Perspectives from the Teenie Harris Archive Advisory Committee," moderated by Carnegie Director Lynn Zelevansky, 1-2:30 p.m. Saturday (free). Louise Lippincott and Kerin Shellenbarger, Teenie Harris collection archivist, will join committee members Laurence Glasco, Johnson Martin, Tony Norman, Ralph Proctor, Cecile Shellman and Joe Trotter. A Nov. 10 "Lunch & Learn" will be led by Ms. Shellenbarge and oral history coordinator Charlene Foggie-Barnett ($22, $20 members, includes lunch; register at 412-622-3288). Culture Club, from 5:30-9 p.m. Nov. 17, will feature Charlee Brodsky, Linda Benedict-Jones, Richard Stoner, Mr. Norman and Ms. Shellman discussing favorite images ($10 includes museum admission and one drink ticket).For 2012 events, including a theatrical performance, photography symposium, poetry reading and gospel concert, visit the Carnegie website.
Affiliated: A full-length musical world premiere based on the exhibition score will be performed by the 21st Century Swing Band at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, North Side (date TBD). Activities at the August Wilson Center, Downtown, include an exhibition of portraits and video interviews made recently with 20 Harris subjects by Rebecca Droke and Bill Wade (opening Nov. 1), and programs related to Mr. Wilson's play cycle incorporating Mr. Harris' images Nov. 12 and Dec. 5.
Book: "Teenie Harris, Photographer," a University of Pittsburgh Press book published in cooperation with the Carnegie, includes essays about Mr. Harris as artist and as photojournalist, 100 image reproductions, a bibliography and chronology ($55 cloth, $24.95 soft cover).