By JAMES NYE
PUBLISHED: 12:51 EST, 2 June 2013 | UPDATED: 13:45 EST, 2 June 2013
Celebrated Pittsburgh photographer Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris did not have to wander far from the Steel City to capture the more than 80,000 images that now exists as part of his extensive archive.
For four decades, Harris was one of the Pittsburgh Couriers top photographers, capturing the hard-working city’s myriad of cultures, people and news, good and bad.
Together with the Carnegie Museum of Art, Harris’ estate exhibit the great man’s body of work – bringing one of America’s greatest street photographers to an audience that by-and-large has never heard of him.
‘Teenie has been known and loved in Pittsburgh ever since the 1930s, but his reputation outside the city is just beginning to spread,’ said Lulu Lippincott, curator of of Teenie Harris’ photos at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
Starting work in 1930s Pittsburgh in the city’s Hill District – Harris managed to photograph the lives of African-American people in a manner which conveys the struggle and the trials of mid 20th century urban American life.
There are photographs of children playing, women laughing and me in bars as civil rights issues burn in the background for the nation’s African-American community.
‘Teenie conveys in a way that I’ve never experienced before in photographs, the immediate experience of being in a different place, a different time,’ says Lippincott about the artist whose work can be viewed at
Ostensibly starting as a studio photographer, Harris’ skill was in his quick and rapid pictures – always catching his subjects as candidly as possible.
‘He was a studio photographer, photojournalist and advertising photographer who helped preserve African-American culture from family life to social life,’ said Deborah Willis, a photography professor at New York University
‘His shots of everyday people are amazing. People seem to kind of jump off the page,’ said Stanley Nelson, an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and MacArthur genius grant winner who has made a number of acclaimed films on black artists, business people, and workers.
‘They don’t have the sense of somebody kind of looking in and spying on the community. For me his pictures are very unique,’ Nelson said.
Harris was a gifted basketball player as a young man, and helped start a Negro League baseball team, too. His brother was Pittsburgh’s biggest bookie, and that gave him access to people throughout the city.
But he found his mission at the Pittsburgh Courier, which was distributed all over the country via a network of Pullman train porters.
Through the paper Harris had endless opportunities to chronicle daily life and to meet the rich, famous, and powerful.
Harris photographed Richard Nixon, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and many musical greats, such as Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington.
‘That was the black national paper of record at the time,’ said Laurence Glasco, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh.
Many people stopped by the Courier offices because of its clout with African-Americans, Glasco said. Yet Harris neither pandered to nor looked down on celebrities, he added.
‘He really didn’t have a cult of celebrity. He wouldn’t cross a street to shake a celebrity’s hand. He was interested in them, but he really saw them as just people. And that really comes out in his photographs,’ Glasco said.
A young Muhammad Ali, for example, is shown picking up his mother and holding her in his arms.
‘He had an equal opportunity lens,’ recalled Teenie’s son, Charles Harris. ‘He just liked people.’
The partnership with the Courier was a perfect match, since its reporters and editors were also pushing for equal rights.
And true to Pittsburgh traditions, Teenie Harris was a hard worker, on call virtually 24-hours a day.
‘No matter what time it was, they could call. A lot of times he didn’t sleep,’ his son said.
Louise Lippincott, the Carnegie Museum of Art Curator, worked closely with Harris in the last years of his life.
‘He had a very strong personal desire to complete a positive view of African-Americans and counter the negative stereotypes in the white press. On the other hand, there’s nothing sugarcoated,’ said Lippincott.
Glasco adds that Harris took pictures of very poor people without exaggerating their situation.
‘You can look at them and say, ‘These are real people; they happen to be very poor.’ They’re more than those clothes they’re wearing. They were first and foremost a person.’
One picture shows a little girl with a big smile sitting on the floor of a newsstand, reading a comic book with a small dog on her lap.
A key piece of history that Harris and the Courier covered heavily was African-Americans who served in World War II and returned home demanding that they be accorded rights equal to white soldiers, sailors, and airmen.
‘The drive for civil rights really began in World War II,’ Lippincott said, far earlier than many imagine.
Yet the photographs are more than just a rich trove of mid-century American history. They emerge as art because Harris became a master of composition and for decades took each picture with a large-format camera that had to be hand-loaded with a single piece of film for each shot.
‘I remember being just shocked and amazed at what an incredible photographer he was. He just had this incredible eye,’ said Nelson, who noted that Harris earned the nickname ‘One Shot’ for his ability to deliver an assignment with one photograph.
Many of the pictures show a successful — and happy — black middle class. One young woman is depicted posing on the hood of a 1950s car, with steel mills in the background, while another simply kneels while playing with two small dogs.
And even before the civil rights movement, there are many pictures showing black and white children and adults together.
Glasco notes that even some controversial pictures seem to defy current expectations of what the past was like. In one, a man in a car has a cross-dressing male companion on each side.
‘They’re happy, they’re proud, they’re smiling. It’s a joyful thing,’ Glasco said of the men openly dressing as women. At an annual parade in Pittsburgh’s Hill district, one car was often filled with cross-dressers who waved at crowds, he added.
Crestas Terrace police officer D. A. Cook, and Dorothy Anderson, standing on hillside crime scene of murder of Raymond Jones, Crestas Terrace, May 1949
Glasco once saw a Harris picture of cross-dressers next to contemporary pictures with the same subject, and was struck by the anger and hostility of the people in the new pictures, and the openness of the people in the older ones.
The Carnegie Museum of Art purchased Harris’ entire collection in 2001, through the Heinz Family Fund.
The exhibit at the museum includes almost 1000 photographs, slide shows, and a jazz soundtrack commissioned especially for the show, which is up until next April. It’s also scheduled to travel to Chicago, Birmingham, Alabama, and Atlanta in the future.
People who can’t get to one of those museums can view almost 60,000 Harris images that have been scanned and put online along with audio interviews of people who knew him.