Greensburg

Charles “Teenie” Harris

Westmoreland Museum of American Art

Charles “Teenie” Harris (1908–98) was hired in 1939 as a freelance photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, a widely circulating African-American newspaper. For the next forty-some years he covered the local scene: He took pictures of steelworkers, Negro League baseball players, and neighborhood kids; he made portraits of a coal miner, a female disc jockey, a soda jerk, and a policeman; he photographed visiting leaders like John F. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Martin Luther King Jr. as well as protesters against racial segregation; and he snapped celebrities, including Duke Ellington, Joe Louis, Paul Robeson, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. In all he shot about 100,000 photographs for the paper.

But his most extraordinary achievement may have been his recording of nonevents. Born to a relatively well-off family in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which in the ’30s was a center for African-American culture, Harris captured a dignified side of black working-class lie. When he photographs his 1941 Cadillac parked in front of his studio, his pride in the community shows. Justly so, for all the people in these pictures look assured, happy, well-dressed (outside church or out on the town), and full of good spirits. He depicts nightlife but never violence; he avoided showing poverty.

Harris seems to have been unconcerned with exhibiting his pictures as works of art. Impoverished in old age, he was talked into giving up his archives to a stranger, who then failed to publicize them. Only very recently, after an extended legal battle, were the photographs returned to the Harris family; the Westmoreland exhibition was the first comprehensive display of his work. Copies of the Pittsburgh Courier in a vitrine showed that when originally published his photographs were grainy and small. Handsomely prepared by a studio specializing in archival printing, the eighty-two large black-and-white pictures on display were made from Harris’s negatives. These prints hold their own in the museum galleries, but we learn that, surprisingly, they were cropped as the printing studio felt Harris “would have wanted them to appear.” Given that Harris was nicknamed “One Shot,” it seems of particular importance to exhibit his pictures undoctored, as they appeared in his lifetime.

In any case, the documentary value of these photographs transcends their value as works of art. They are a great historical record of a now-vanished social life. For its proximity to downtown Pittsburgh, the Hill District ought to be prime real estate; instead, many of its houses are boarded up or demolished. What was a major center for African-American nightlife is now an impoverished neighborhood. In an all too obvious way, the beautification of these photographs highlights this melancholy history. Now that an enterprising regional museum has displayed Harris’s work, I hope that a fuller selection of his photographs as they originally appeared will be shown and published.

David Carrier