Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story

Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story,
October 29, 2011–April 7, 2012

American Story Photo  

Carnegie Museum of Art presents the groundbreaking retrospective exhibition of an important black artist, Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story. Opening in Pittsburgh on October 29, 2011, it features 987 of Harris’s most beautiful, appealing, and historically significant images. An immersive digital installation will be accompanied by innovative interpretive resources, a website, and public programs. A reduced-scale version will go on national tour beginning February 2012, traveling to the Harold Washington Library Center, Chicago (February 4–June 4, 2012), the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (August 7–October 28, 2012), and the Robert Woodruff Library at the Atlanta University Center (January 20–April 13, 2013). 

Charles “Teenie” Harris (1908–1998) began in life as a semiprofessional athlete and part-time numbers runner in Pittsburgh’s Hill District community. He turned to photography in the late 1930s, specializing in glamour portraits. By 1941, he was also freelancing for the Pittsburgh Courier, the leading African American newspaper of the era. In 1953, he closed his studio to concentrate on photojournalism and he became a nationally respected news photographer before retiring around 1975. Harris’s life work chronicles a typical, vibrant black urban community during the Jim Crow and civil rights eras. His images capture the “dailiness” of common experience, as well as the exceptional personalities who shaped the 20th century: entertainer Lena Horne, baseball star Jackie Robinson, and leaders such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Harris’s oeuvre runs the gamut from formal portraits to crime scenes to streetscapes to news events, all distinguished by his aesthetic sensibility—great rapport with his human subjects, strong compositional sense, and an uncanny awareness of the telling activities at the margins. The result is a unique view of American black life and culture seen from the inside and after hours.

Teenie Harris, Photographer draws on 10 years of research into his archive of 80,000 negatives for the most comprehensive study to date of this important black photographer. “First-person narratives,” such as oral histories collected from Harris’s family, subjects, and colleagues, as well as the stories and captions accompanying his news photographs in the Pittsburgh Courier, provide insights into the meaning and historic importance of selected images and Harris’s work in general. The exhibition exploits the digital images and audio recordings of the Teenie Harris Archive with a sophisticated multimedia installation designed to immerse visitors in the world of Teenie Harris. In the first gallery, projected life-size images presented in thematic sequences—At Home, Gatherings, Urban Landscapes, Rise & Fall of the Crawford Grill, Crossroads, and Words & Signs—are combined with a jazz soundtrack creates the sense of “being there” for today’s audience. In the next gallery, a room-sized chronology of 987 Harris works and a web-based interactive experience introduce visitors to the rich visual resources of the archive—and offer access to recorded commentary of Harris’s contemporaries—encouraging them to analyze the work from multiple perspectives. The final section of the exhibition is dedicated to an in-depth evaluation of Harris as an artist. Carnegie Museum of Art has invited experts in art, photography, journalism, education, and history to select an image each thinks is great, and provide the rationale for their choice. Their selections, printed and displayed to the highest standard of fine art photography, demonstrate Harris’s artistic achievement to the full. Nearby, The Artist at Work, a 19-minute multimedia production, pairs the commentary of Harris family, colleagues, and subjects with key images to elucidate his working methods, personal and artistic goals, and place in his community and in history.

In addition to the generous support of The National Endowment for the Humanities, major support for this exhibition is provided by PNC Financial Services Group, Inc., and Richard King Mellon Foundation. Support is also provided by The Heinz Endowments and the Virginia Kaufman Fund. Support for education programming connected to the exhibition is provided by The Grable Foundation. Support for the exhibition soundtrack is provided by BNY Mellon. Other generous support is provided by The Pittsburgh Foundation, The Fellows of Carnegie Museum of Art, and the Beal Publication Fund.

National Endowment for the HumanitiesPNC Logo