Harris' photos open a window to growing up black in the area
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For 40 years, photographer Teenie Harris aimed his lenses at Pittsburgh's black community. His photographs were a slice of heaven, capturing a time and place in black history where community was preeminent.Teenie Harris photos, courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art
A photo of children in the Hill District's Ammon Center swimming pool with chain on rim, circa 1962, is among the works of Teenie Harris on display in "Looking Forward," an exhibition by the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.
Click photo for larger image.
Now, in "Looking Forward," an exhibition by the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, comes a focus on the littlest angels.
The show, 53 images culled from thousands of Mr. Harris' photographs of children, is a searing, emotional triumph.
Many of these black-and-white images have never been published. Kamau Ware, the curator of the exhibit, drew them from among the 80,000 negatives housed in archives at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
This a deeply personal exhibit, and eyeing the sepia photographs -- elderly women reading to children, youth posed in their scouting best and a smiling gentleman in a policeman's uniform with a baby on his lap -- is like thumbing through grandma's family album.
But wipe away the nostalgia and look a little closer, and the photographs bear witness to a sometimes cruel society, reflections on class and community disempowerment.
In one, a schoolroom of little girls in pigtails (before the era of hair weaves) observe instruction on how to care for and wash a baby. The girls are all brown-skinned. The baby doll is white. In another, young boys are captured on a corner rough-housing in their Batman glasses -- innocent fun or frozen commentary on a society that offered too few black superheroes.
On one level, Harris' photographs are mysteries. Of the thousands he took, many are undocumented. There is no recording of people, place or time. But look deeper, and there are other clues to African-American life.
In what is believed to be the Hill District's Kinnard Field, a gaggle of youths line up on a sliding board, many of them holding two fingers apart, a possible V for victory sign. In the background, a newly built Addison Terrace, which became one of Pittsburgh's most-worn housing developments, rises. The trees on its banks are still seedlings. In the foreground, the children sit in a playground so new, there is no grass. They flash their victory signs while sitting in the dirt and smiling.
There are other photos that evoke a more positive message about the past. For example, a small child sits askew on a piano bench, his hands gently touching the keys. He beams for the camera. The hardwood floors, the handsome radio reveal a refined, middle-class home.
In the album, we also get a glimpse of the community's moral glue: faith and patriotism. Children at camp salute the flag.
In one striking image, a small girl proudly stands, showing off her poster on "Making Home Happy." Her ingredients: visit the sick, obey Mom and Dad, watch for Jesus and read the Bible.
"You can say what you want about Teenie," said Ware, "but these kids let him into their world. It was unadulterated and unfettered."
The exhibit continues through July 15 at the 209/9th Street Gallery, Downtown. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and until 7 p.m. Thursday. Admission is free. For information, call 412-281-5484.
On June 14, from 6-8 p.m., "Looking Forward" will hold a Creative Forum roundtable to interpret and explore the themes of the photography. Panelists include Lulu Lippincott, chief curator, Carnegie Museum of Art; Dr. Deborah Willis, New York University; Lonnie Graham, assistant professor of Art, Penn State University; and Ed Barbour, founder of the original Black Photographers Group of Pittsburgh. This event is free. 412-258-2700.
Another of Harris' photographs shows a Tom Thumb wedding, with a young boy and girl in costume walking down church aisle.
Click photo for larger image.
First Published May 26, 2006 12:00 am