A Midcentury Portrait of Black Culture in Pittsburgh
For more than fifty years, Charles “Teenie” Harris created a vivid record of the city. Now, a major archival project stands to reveal the scope of his vision.
Sometime in the middle of the last century, Charles “Teenie” Harris became known for often taking only one picture of his subjects, and was aptly nicknamed “One Shot” by the former mayor of Pittsburgh David L. Lawrence. “He was fast,” Charlene Foggie-Barnett, the Teenie Harris community archivist at the Carnegie Museum of Art, told me over Zoom in late October 2022. “He’d run in and say, ‘Get together, everybody, I’m only gonna take one shot.’” With a determined energy, Harris took “one shot” many, many times in his long career, capturing the ordinary beauty of Black life in the city.
Professionally, Harris started out at the Washington, DC–based Flash Weekly Newspicture Magazine, but he had been exposed to photography since he was a small child. For more than forty years, Harris was the leading photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s largest Black newspapers. At the Courier, he worked on assignments ranging from the civil rights movement (protests, rallies, and marches) to local events such as birthdays, community meetings, cultural programs, and sports activities. Intersecting with the lives of innumerable Pittsburgh residents as a street photographer, studio photographer, and photojournalist, he made note of what he saw as a member of Pittsburgh’s Black communities, touching on themes of sexuality, religion, intimacy, memory, slavery, and more. He lived for ninety years, nearly the twentieth century in its entirety. His work poses the question, How can photography be conceived as a history of experience?
Harris’s presence in Pittsburgh’s historically Black Hill District, Speed Graphic camera in hand, was ubiquitous. As exclaimed in He’s a Black Man!, an early 1970s Sears Public Affairs radio series, “There may very well be a Black person in Pittsburgh who hasn’t had his photo snapped by ‘Teenie’ Harris, but that would more than likely be a Black person in Pittsburgh who hasn’t had his picture taken at all.”
Through Harris’s eyes, the pressures of historic events including the Great Depression, the Great Migration, Black freedom struggles, civil rights campaigns, World War II, and Jim Crow were given rich visual references. Harris captured the contours of political life: a Black elder named Mary Reid holding a note defaced with swastikas, reading “Kill All Blacks” and “Stop Niger [sic] Take Over”; a billboard advertising the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign demanding low-income housing and a moratorium against redevelopment in the Hill District; and a 1970 broadside of the Black Panther manifesto. He also photographed cultural icons when they passed through a deeply segregated and heavily policed Pittsburgh, a city he rarely left: well-known musicians (Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington), politicians (John F. Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Richard Nixon), civil rights leaders and organizers (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael), dancers (Josephine Baker), singers (Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Eartha Kitt), and athletes (Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Willie Mays). As the art historian Nicole Fleetwood writes in her 2011 book Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness, “Harris’s lens provides an alternative visual index of black lived experience of the twentieth century, one that does not rely on the familiar device of photographic iconicity.”
Charles “Teenie” Harris, Possibly the Loendi Club, Pittsburgh, ca. 1930–45
In 1937, Harris opened his own studio. In addition, he regularly freelanced for advertising agencies and insurance companies in order to make ends meet given the scant resources on offer from the Black press. Still, roaming around Black Pittsburgh, he made photographs that were just for him, for the sake of his craft, which often exceeded the limits of documentary photography and reportage. Harris’s practice combined the ordinary, uniquely vibrant character of Black life, including such shiny events as family portraits, weddings, baptisms, and funerals, with the more quotidian subjects of work and birth. He took pictures inside hotels, nightclubs, homes, restaurants, boxing rings, and kitchens; on tree-lined, brick-paved, stoop-filled streets; at railroad yards, police stations, demolitions, groundbreakings, and picnics. He never stopped taking pictures.
The Carnegie Museum of Art’s permanent Teenie Harris collection contains more than seventy thousand negatives from Harris’s working career, spanning from the 1930s to the 1980s. Tens of thousands still need to be digitized; among the selection here are several previously unpublished images, part of a major scanning project underway at the museum. Some images from Harris’s formidable photographic archive are online and searchable. They have woozily long titles describing what they depict (partly because the recording of this information is ongoing). Over the past twenty years, since the institution purchased the Harris archive in 2001 from the artist’s estate (a wish of Harris’s before his death), the Carnegie has searched for more details and identifications. The catalog listings, which continue to evolve as new information becomes available, come from oral histories done with people who appear in Harris’s photographs or from research via the Pittsburgh Courier or Flash Weekly Newspicture Magazine.
Instrumental to the contemporary and historical Harris moment, as well as to the Carnegie, is Foggie-Barnett, who knew Harris and was photographed by him as a child in the Hill District. She describes Harris as a friend of her parents, Bishop and Mrs. Charles H. Foggie, who were civil rights leaders. “Teenie was just an everyday occurrence,” she recalls, with pride. “It was not uncommon, for a lot of people, to have Teenie pop up at any time.”
In 2006, when Foggie-Barnett read in the newspaper that the Carnegie Museum of Art was looking for children photographed by Harris, she was the only person who showed up at the museum. “Part of the concern, of course, was what is the Carnegie doing with these images?” she says. The recording of this history is urgent, but the critique of big institutions, which often excluded and exploited the Black community, is just as pressing. Many of Harris’s acquaintances are nearing the end of their lives, but they still express an unsurprising distrust of institutional archives or a fear that they may not say the “right thing.”
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Foggie-Barnett ended up creating an oral history with the museum. “The archive had come almost exclusively unidentified to the Carnegie,” she says. “And so, the first-person interviews and people talking about their lived experiences as seen through Teenie’s lens was the way they were building the information of the archive. I got so excited by and so appreciative of how the staff treated the information. They were very delicate in how they asked questions and were very clear and sincere about what their intentions were,” she explains. “I started bringing some people with me that they couldn’t get to come down. And a lot of those were elderly people, like my original childhood hairdresser [Gloria Golden Grate], who had her own shop but was also one of the first Black models in Pittsburgh.”
Foggie-Barnett began volunteering at the museum in 2006 and was hired in 2010 as the community archivist. She is now a well-respected steward of the Harris archive, involved in preserving, curating, and broadening the collection’s scope and community relevance. Along with the archivist Dominique Luster, she co-organized In Sharp Focus: Charles “Teenie” Harris, a permanent exhibition in the Carnegie’s Scaife Galleries that opened in January 2020. As a researcher studying the Harris archive, Foggie-Barnett conducts oral histories and coordinates outreach by bringing exhibition prints to nursing homes, delivering lectures in schools and on campuses, and giving tours of the exhibition.
Looking at the subjects in Harris’s pictures, we see people who find comfort and trust in a world where comfort and trust are never guaranteed.
At its core, Harris’s picture-making practice was aimed at a Pittsburgh in transformation, shifting from a steel-producing hub of industrialism to a city best described as postindustrial. As the city changed, many tensions around segregation and desegregation, for example, unraveled at the Highland Park pool. In the 1940s and 1950s, civil rights organizers in Pittsburgh staged demonstrations involving interracial swimming. As the historian Joe William Trotter Jr. notes in his essay “Harris, History, and the Hill,” published in the 2011 catalog Teenie Harris, Photographer: Image, Memory, History, white people harassed the swimmers. Harris photographed many outdoor and indoor pools: some give off a sense of leisure (glamorous poses, a hand on the hip), others focus on sports (boys lined up at the edge of a pool for a swim meet), but all are overburdened by the historical fact that municipal swimming pools were crucial sites of racial violence during segregation. The corresponding fear of Black people “contaminating” whites loomed large.
Harris wanted you to see, but he also wanted you to listen to the stories he was presenting in his art. “He is leaving clues, he is revealing story lines and truths,” says Foggie-Barnett. “He’s making a statement.” Harris trains the eye to notice more idiosyncratic acts, that mental montage of stills ever blowing in our head, at the edges of memory.
A single Harris photograph can take the form of a transgenerational account of the present. In one image, from December 1954, Sabre “Mother” Washington, a formerly enslaved woman, stands in her Conemaugh Street home on the occasion of her 109th birthday. The image would be remarkable on its own, but Washington, seemingly having just stood up from her floral-patterned chair for the picture, and with her shadow imprinting the living room wall behind her, gives the impression that she
is hovering, evoking the hauntings of the slave trade.
In other photographs, in which people aren’t always as readily identifiable, some looking directly at the camera and others seemingly posed, subtleties break through the frame: a Sylvania television playing footage from the 1963 March on Washington, forcing the viewer to take note of the technologies of representation. Harris’s oeuvre chronicles historic events but also what the art historian Cheryl Finley calls, in Teenie Harris, Photographer, “glimpses of everyday life and the people who gave it vitality, dignity, and purpose.”
Harris often provided visual language to interstices only he could see. Swirling night scenes—the subtle shift in brightness as lights twinkle over a foggy steel mill; sparsely populated urban landscapes; the subdued, anxious excitement of people standing around Greyhound buses for a march—reveal an aesthetic perspective that is an essential element of his work, cementing Harris’s position as not only a photojournalist and studio photographer but an artist. Harris’s rendering of Black skin and epidermal intensity was yet another sign of his creative virtuosity. Foggie-Barnett informs me that Harris used dodging and burning techniques in the darkroom so that Black skin would develop in rich shades.
As The Black Press: Soldiers without Swords, a 1999 documentary film by Stanley Nelson, illuminates, Black print culture played a determining institutional role in fighting white supremacy, especially during the twentieth century. Photographs are not only visual archives of the past but the axis on which people represent themselves, or see themselves represented. In Teenie Harris, Photographer, the historian Laurence Glasco describes Harris as a people person who often used comedy as a way to deflect attention from his four-by-five-inch handheld camera. Looking at the subjects in Harris’s pictures, we see people who find comfort and trust in a world where comfort and trust are never guaranteed, especially considering the ethnographic exploitation at the time by many American photographers slumming it for the shot.
Yet another important instance of Harris’s representation of the ill-represented: “He has an array of photos of the LGBTQ+ community that most people didn’t know existed,” Foggie-Barnett tells me. In 2018, Black Artists’ Networks in Dialogue (BAND) Gallery, in Toronto, exhibited Harris’s work in a show called Cutting a Figure: Black Style through the Lens of Charles “Teenie” Harris, which featured midcentury scenes of queer and transgender aesthetic culture, such as the drag performers “Gilda” and “Junie” Turner in feathered costumes. “These images reveal the complete trust his subjects had in Harris,” reads the online blurb. “Any spectacle related to outlandish dress is overshadowed by Harris’s intimate and familial treatment of his subjects.”
Harris’s work was, and is, part of the fabric of the continued making of a heterogeneous Black narrative in Pittsburgh and beyond. One finds oneself changed by his visually quiet sociability. “He is the keeper of our history,” Foggie-Barnett says. She encourages those who are young to explore Harris’s archive and ask questions about what it means for them and their future. What remains will be up to them.
This article originally appeared in Aperture, issue 250, “We Make Pictures in Order to Live.”