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
through April 7, 2012.
The groundbreaking exhibition celebrates 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 generate an immersive experience in the exhibition's opening gallery. Subsequent galleries 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 offers 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 are 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 (19081998) 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.
The show has been organized by Carnegie Museum of Art staff, working with an advisory committee from Pittsburgh's African American community that provided direction for the exhibition's content, themes, and goals. Members of the committee include Dr. Laurence Glasco, Dr. Johnson Martin, Tony Norman, Dr. Ralph Proctor, Cecile Shellman, and Dr. Joe Trotter. Members of the founding Teenie Harris Archive Advisory Committee include Neil Barclay, Oliver W. Byrd, Dr. Laurence Glasco, Charles A. Harris, Gladys Maharam, William Strickland Jr., Dr. Nancy Washington, and Dr. Deborah Willis; and project consultants Paul Messier, Elizabeth Shaw, Dr. Ralph Proctor, and John Brewer. Louise Lippincott, curator of fine arts at Carnegie Museum of Art is project manager for the exhibition and Kerin Shellenbarger is the Teenie Harris archivist.
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 Hillweddings, funerals, family portraits, parades, church events, street scenes, graduationsas 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 musiciansLouis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Ahmad Jamal, Sarah Vaughan, and Duke Ellingtonwere 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."