While there are a number of images of Teenie Harris’s family events in the collection, there are just a few without people in them. One December in the late 1940s or early 1950s, he took a picture of their Christmas tree in a corner of his living room. The room is dim and cozy, the tree is lit, and the presents beneath opened and in slight disarray (pictured above).
The caption of this image published in the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper on November 8, 1941, page 22, reads: “Inclement Weather forced cancellation of outdoor celebrations Halloween night but the Bedford Dwellings party, sponsored by the Parents Commission and the Tenants Council, attracted over 450 costumed kiddies from the Hill area. This was the largest party held in the Dwellings. The above picture shows part of the huge youthful gathering. –Harris Photo.”
Bedford Dwellings was among the country’s first housing projects. Built over the former sites of Greenlee Field and Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in the Hill District, it offered safe affordable housing with heat, plumbing, and electricity—necessities that were sometimes lacking from other slum landlord-owned neighborhood buildings. It was also home to a large immigrant population—both African Americans coming up from the South and Europeans seeking jobs in the area industries. In 1941, the buildings were still nearly brand-new and according to the Pittsburgh Courier, out of 800 residents, nearly 400 were children. A large Halloween celebration was planned for them, but the weather did not cooperate—an article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that ran on November 1st, stated: “Maybe the witches were riding fire hoses instead of broomsticks, for during the afternoon and evening more than a half inch of rain fell…”
Here at Carnegie Museum of Art we’ve just installed the latest show of Charles “Teenie” Harris’s work in the Lobby Gallery, featuring 25 images on a particular theme as selected by guest curators. The exhibition, Teenie Harris Photographs: Civil Rights Perspectives, is quite special because the theme of civil rights is by far the largest of Harris’s work. He documented not only protest marches and demonstrations, but the meetings held to plan them; integration efforts in education, employment, and the military; African Americans who were the first to hold particular jobs and political roles in Western Pennsylvania; housing discrimination and poor living conditions; injustices in urban redevelopment; and the day-to-day struggles and joys where basic rights were denied or granted. This is the first look into this enormous and important topic of his work.
We were honored to work with guest curators Alma Speed Fox, former Executive Director, Pittsburgh NAACP and founding member and Executive Vice President of Freedom Unlimited, and K. Chase Patterson, President and CEO of Corporate Diversity Associates and Chairman of Centennial Human Rights Dinner, Pittsburgh NAACP. Their conversations about who were in the pictures and what they were doing, were often valuable and vast, and could not possibly fit on a label, such as the passage below about one of Harris’s iconic images from the civil rights movement.
Teenie Harris is perhaps best known for his ability to photograph people and capture their spectrum of expressions as well as truthfully document their life events. He was surrounded by family, friends, and a large community who seemed to be drawn to him and offered their trust to his lens, as well as frequently “photobombed” the margins of his frame while he was on assignment.
But Harris also had a keen eye for architecture and the urban landscape—he was known to have a deep love for the city of Pittsburgh, and at times it seems as if the city itself was another member of his community. His landscape and architectural images show the same intimacy and the deliberate and careful composition that he used when photographing children playing in the street or a family being evicted from their home. Continue reading
When we talk to people who knew Teenie Harris personally we hear the same thing over and over again: Teenie was everywhere, always taking pictures. We asked his family if he ever slept since the other part of taking pictures required long hours in the darkroom. They said he managed to keep on going with his trademark positive energy despite little sleep at times. Then we wondered, what about his down time, did he ever put down the camera? Continue reading