Charles "Teenie" Harris had a photographic mission: going beyond the obvious or sensational to capture the essence of daily African-American life in the 20th century
For more than 40 years, Harris — as lead photographer of the influential Pittsburgh Courier newspaper — took almost 80,000 pictures of people from all walks of life: presidents, housewives, sports stars, babies, civil rights leaders and even cross-dressing drag queens.
Now, a new exhibit and online catalog is showing the depth of Harris’ work, an archive showing a major artistic achievement that influenced people around the country.
"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 African-American 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 black Pullman train porters. Through the paper Harris had endless opportunities to chronicle daily life and to meet the rich, famous, and powerful.
Harris photographed Presidents Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy; Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, 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.
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.