Westmoreland Museum of American Art

Greensburg, Pennsylvania




Spirit of a Community: The Photographs of Charles "Teenie" Harris


"Spirit of a Community: The Photographs of Charles 'Teenie' Harris," an exhibition organized by the Westmoreland Museum of American Art will open on February 24 and run through June 10, 2001. Charles "Teenie" Harris was a chronicler of the African-American community in Pittsburgh for over forty years. This exhibition of 82 photographs celebrates the vibrancy of Pittsburgh's Hill District and neighborhoods during the time when the black community was creating its own unique sources of strength, vitality, and hope, through the complicated era of desegregation, and again into the time of re-segregation.

Although a Teenie Harris exhibition was held last year at the Senator John Heinz Regional History Center and several images by Harris were shown in the popular exhibition, Pittsburgh Revealed, at the Carnegie Museum of Art three years ago, this will be the first exhibition of this size of the work of Harris. Many of the images will be exhibited for the first time as a result of the Harris family's winning, through litigation, the release of over 80,000 negatives last year. An important aspect of this exhibition is that the negatives have been printed as fine art prints. Teenie produced high quality images for his portrait work, but his "street" photography and images produced for the Courier were considered ephemera. The exhibition photographs were printed by Gus Kayafas of Palm Press Inc. Palm Press is a photographic studio specializing in archival gelatin-silver printing whose clients include museums, artists, photographers, and corporations like Smithsonian Institution, Minor-White, The Estate of Walker Evans to name a few. These photographs are not only significant as works of art, but offer a rare look into the black communities of Pittsburgh from the 1930s to 1970s, during and after the civil rights movement. (left: Waitress at the Crawford Grill, 1952, © 2000 Estate of Charles H. Harris)


The Significance of Char/es "Teenie" Harris

As a photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the pre-eminent black news weeklies in America, Teenie Harris traveled the alleys, workplaces, nightclubs, and ballparks of his native city with a Speed Graphic black-and-white camera in hand. Whether backstage with Dizzy Gillespie and Lena Horne, in the dugout with Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige, or on the streets of the Hill District or Homewood-Brushton, Teenie Harris documented black Pittsburgh with his well-crafted photographs. His images create a historically and sociologically accurate record of Pittsburgh and its African-American history from 1931 through 1975. He was nicknamed "One Shot" by Mayor David L. Lawrence because of his habit of snapping only one shot of him when other photographers would shoot many. Politics, sports, entertainment, church, home, and community figure prominently in the artist's images of Pittsburgh. (left: Little Boy Boxer, 1949, © 2000 Estate of Charles H. Harris)

As WMAA director Judith O'Toole explains, "The exhibition will have an audience appeal broader than photographers and art lovers since Harris's photos capture celebratory events and everyday occurrences over forty years in Pittsburgh and its neighborhoods. From history buffs interested in images depicting the civil rights movement, or in this segment of time in Pittsburgh's history, to sports fans remembering Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige; from music lovers recalling Billy Eckstine and Lena Horne to those connected to the communities photographed by Harris; this exhibition will shed light on the lives and culture of East Pittsburgh through the eyes of Charles "Teenie" Harris."

His images are an important visual history of Pittsburgh and the City's African-American communities that even Pittsburghers know little about. His photography not only symbolized the stories of the Pittsburgh Courier, he illustrated the 20th century black experience in the city of Pittsburgh. To quote Dr. Edna McKenzie, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier, "Pittsburgh was far from a backward decaying community. We often traveled together scurrying around to make city-desk deadlines during the 1940s and early 1950s when opportunities for social and economic advancement were being created by citizens tired of second-class status. And while racism reigned here in every walk of life, Teenie recorded the players and the events in the perpetual struggle for dignity and civil rights in Pittsburgh where changes took place much earlier than on the national scene. Teenie and his camera had something special to capture almost every day," adding that he was "on the job all during the revolution of the sixties and the new politics of the seventies and his pictures highlight the saga of desegregation and resegregation of the residential sections and school districts" . . . "Pittsburgh attracted every major black artist, athlete, political figure, and intellectual, and Harris photographed them all. He also captured the lives of its working people, from domestics, porters, teamsters, millworkers, and of its families, from grandparents on the porch swing to children playing on the street. His images reflect the hearts and homes of the African-American communities of Pittsburgh."

As a photojournalist, free-lancer, and portrait photographer, Teenie Harris created nearly 100,000 negatives, some of which have never been seen. Pittsburgh film makers, Kenneth Love and Henry J. Simonds, who together are working on a film on "Teenie" Harris, served as co-curators of this exhibition. After scrutinizing hundreds of negatives, they selected the 82 photographs included in the exhibition. While only a small number of photographs from the tremendous inventory of negatives are represented, their selection offers a range in imagery that provides the viewer with a sense of the broad scope of Teenie's work. According to Love and Simonds, "The value of Teenie's legacy lies not only in the sheer volume of images, but also in the range of pictures he took. Throughout his career, he covered every aspect of life affecting the black community. Both for the Courier and on his own, his images display a beautiful, vibrant social life in which people were proud and driven and celebrated life. He captured the everyday man at work in the factories and mines and showed businessmen going about their daily affairs. He went into the schools, the churches, and the YMCAs and recorded the activities that reinforced the integrity and values of the community."

The exhibition is co-curated by Kenneth Love and Henry J. Simonds in coordination with WMAA curator, Barbara L. Jones.

A catalogue featuring 30 reproductions accompanies the Spirit of a Community exhibition and includes essays by the artist's son, Charles A. "Teenie" Harris, Co-curators Kenneth Love and Henry J. Simonds, Linda Benedict-Jones, Director of the Silver Eye Center for Photography, Pittsburgh, and Cynthia Kernick, Partner, Reed Smith LLP. Funding for the exhibition is provided by the Howard Heinz Endowment, The Henry L. Hillman Foundation, Gus Kayafas and Palm Press Inc., The Donald and Sylvia Robinson Foundation, The Juliet Lea Hillman Simonds Foundation Inc., and Harley N. Trice II, Esq.

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/23/11

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