on Teenie Harris, Photographer, edited by Cheryl Finley, Laurence Glasco and Joe W. Trotter (Univ. of Pittsburgh Press)

Charles “Teenie” Harris won his first award at the 1945 Pittsburgh Photographers Show for an image called “Cotton Candy.” Hired in 1940 as the staff photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, Harris would go on to shoot over 80,000 images for that weekly publication. The Courier was the country’s largest African-American weekly, publishing from 1907 to 1966. HarrisCandy.jpgIn its heyday, the paper distributed fourteen editions nationally with a circulation of 250,000 in 1938, and ran a staff of 350 and a printing plant.

But only recently have the significance and scope of Harris’ work been recognized. In 2001, the Carnegie Museum of Art purchased the collection of negatives from the Harris estate, opening the way both to preservation and publication. The appearance of Teenie Harris, Photographer leaves little doubt that his work is comparable not only to James Van Der Zee’s portraits of Harlem but also belongs next to that of Berenice Abbott, W. Eugene Smith, Esther Bubley and Robert Frank.

Harris was born in Pittsburgh in 1908 and lived in the city’s Hill District where his hard-working family owned the Masio Hotel. Opening as a boarding house in 1917, the Masio coincided with “one of the most significant developments of black urban life – the so-called Great Migration,” writes Laurence Glasco in his biographical essay in Teenie Harris, Photographer/ “America’s entry into World War I in 1917 closed shipping lanes from Europe, thereby preventing immigrants from coming to the United States to find work. Northern industrialists, desperate for labor, recruited blacks to work their mines and mills.”

TeenieCover.jpgThrough his mid-20’s, Harris worked as a dishwasher, chauffeur, and bag man for his brother’s numbers business. But in the Hill District, he was best known for his sports skills, his dapper dress, his good looks, and his Packard. It was here that Harris shot his first pictures for the Flash Newspicture Magazine with a Rolleicord medium-format camera.

By the 1950’s, each issue of the Courier included as many as a dozen of Harris’ photos of politicians and athletes, crime scenes and detectives, newlyweds and the elderly, store windows and car crashes, workers and protestors, and visiting and local entertainers. But he also captured the looks of the city – busy intersections, spans of bridges, political billboards, and the imposing steel mills. Harris had an instinctive eye for the positive and vivacious. His outgoing personality and affability put people at ease. Even as he pointed his big Graflex Speed Camera and flash, his subjects opened up to him. Many of his subjects seem to be reacting to his energy. (Harris moved to a 35mm Pentax and color film only in the 1970s.)

HarrisCheckers.jpgDuring Harris’ prime working years of the 50’s and 60’s, African Americans increased from 12 to 20 per cent of Pittsburgh’s population – while the city’s total population declined as whites left the city and the steel business declined. Yet racial and class inequity persisted. Harris sought to celebrate the accomplishments and lively character of the black middle class while underscoring the city’s turmoil. The Courier’s tradition of protest was illuminated by Harris’ coverage of key events. His lens was capacious enough to suggest a wish for a more inclusive community.

The three engaging essays in Teenie Harris, Photographer present an entire era and history, interweaving the political and social issues of those decades with the evolution of journalistic photography and its techniques. In her essay "The Practice of Everyday Life," Cheryl Finley observes that Harris “had been dismayed by photographs of black people in the mainstream press that lacked definition and were literally 'blacked out' by high contrast, and never corrected with lower levels of contrast or more brightness." His use of flash tended to soften the usual highlights and brighten the low tones, thus expanding the range of grays, especially the middle tones. (He was known as “One Shot Harris” for his ability to get the photo on the first try – but also, the Courier made him pay for his own flash bulbs.)

HarrisRosebud.jpgLaurence Glasco's biographical essay, "An American Life, an American Story: Charles 'Teenie' Harris and Images of Black Pittsburgh," traces Harris’ roots and values through the story of the close relationships within his extended family. In "Harris, History, and the Hill: Black Pittsburgh in the Twentieth Century," Joe W. Trotter portrays the bustling Hill District with its vibrant if insular social and political networks in the pre-W.W.II years. Harris’ photos of civil rights protestors and portraits of civil rights leaders are situated within a narrative about the growing influence of the NAACP and National Urban League, a prelude to the resistance movements of the 1960’s.

Although Teenie Harris rarely ventured outside Pittsburgh, his work reads as a witnessing to the spirit and struggles of the age. He was well connected to the city’s jazz scene and photographed Count Basie, Sarah Vaughn, Erroll Garner, Earl Hines, Lena Horne, Nat Cole, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, and Duke Ellington. There are unique shots of Eartha Kitt, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, and Mohammed Ali – and also Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture).

On April 23, 1983, the Courier printed his final photograph: a couple celebrating their sixtieth wedding anniversary. TeenieSpeedGraphic.jpgTeenie Harris died in 1998. In 2005 he was inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame.

The University of Pittsburgh Press has published this book as an oversized paperback, making it affordable for many of us to investigate Harris’ oeuvre. The photos are finely printed, many in large page format.

[Published October 28, 2011. 208 pages, $55.00/24.95. 11x10.5” format, 98 b&w photos, 100 plates. In cooperation with Carnegie Museum of Art.]