This weekend's highly anticipated opening of Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story at Carnegie Museum of Art will provide the public with a comprehensive and never before seen look at mid-20th-century African American life. Marking the culmination of an extensive (10 years and counting!) effort to preserve and document a major collection of historically and artistically significant body of photojournalism, An American Storyis not only the first major retrospective of work by the Hill District born artist, but also provides the public, scholars, educators, students and Internet users with unprecedented access to a staggering number of catalogued and digitized images.
Opening on Oct. 29, the groundbreaking and immersive exhibition--which travels to several major American cities after debuting in Pittsburgh--features large-scale photographic projections of 1,000 of Harris’s most significant images. Organized into seven sections—“Crossroads,” “Gatherings,” “Urban Landscapes,” “Style,” “At Home,” “The Rise and Fall of the Crawford Grill,” and “Words and Signs”—the compelling images are choreographed in sequence and synched to an original soundtrack composed by MCG Jazz.A second gallery features a chronological installation of small prints of the projected images accompanied by a referencing system, bank of computers and resource books. The result is what's already being called one of the most complete portraits anywhere of 20th-century African American experience. Celebrating Harris' rich legacy alongside his pioneering and productive 40-year career as a Pittsburgh Courier photographer, the exhibition also features an exploration of his working process and artistry, and audio commentary by many people who knew him.To illuminate the show's works and themes, the museum has made Harris's stunning photographs--and many of the accompanying exhibition materials--accessible online. Via the museum’s one-of-a-kind Teenie Harris Archive, visitors and worldwide audiences now have access to more than 73,000 images as well as in-depth contextual materials.During his 40-year career as freelance and staff photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s most influential black newspapers, Teenie Harris (1908–1998) produced more than 80,000 images of Pittsburgh’s African American community. Taken from the 1930s to the 1970s, Harris' images document a period of momentous change for black Americans. Harris's diverse subjects ranged from the everyday lives of ordinary people to visits by powerful and glamorous national figures to the city that was at one time the country's industrial center. From birthday parties to civil rights boycotts, Harris' authentic vision helps to create a larger narrative of American history, art, and culture.Says Louise Lippincott, the museum's curator of fine arts: "What makes the physical collection so amazing, and it will always be, is its completeness, with 40 years of daily life, major events, critical moments, and important people. But it is also an insider's perspective. A lot of African American photography of that time was sponsored by the government. Teenie was very much a part of his community, and as a result, his perspective on events, people and places was different from what we're accustomed to seeing in other photographs. People relaxed and opened up for Teenie in ways that they would not for other photographers. The personal connection he had with his sitters that comes through in his photographs. You can especially see this with his photos of celebrities, entertainers, politicians, and athletes. In some photographs, they are all dressed up, while others were taken of them sitting back stage or at the Crawford Grill, so we get a sense of their lives. If Teenie had not done this, it would have been lost forever."The exhibition also underscores Harris's relationship to the many historically African American neighborhoods of Pittsburgh and the region, with images he shot Downtown, in the Hill District, Homewood, East Liberty, Homestead, Clairton, and up and down the rivers. An immersive multimedia production, the unique presentation also features an audio tour, background about Harris's working methods and oral histories collected from his family, friends and colleagues. "What is distinctive about the show and the archive is that all of the information is first person narrative, from newspaper copy or oral histories from people present at the time. The images are Teenie's narrative of his life," adds Lippincott.In 2001, the museum purchased Harris’s archive of approximately 80,000 photographic negatives, few of which were titled and dated. The richly detailed record of public personalities and events, and the lives of everyday people, is considered one of the most important documents of 20th-century African American life. Since 2003, the museum has scanned and cataloged some 60,000 images, many of which are now available on the online database.Through extensive outreach efforts, lectures, special events, and exhibitions, the museum has sought assistance in identifying the people, places and events in the images. So far, 2,000 images have been positively identified with help from the community. The past 10 years were dedicated to research efforts, and now the pioneering archive can be used for a wide variety of function by the public. Ever evolving, the archive will continue to built upon, added to and updated. Lippincott says there are still 20,000 more negatives to scan, 10,000 color negatives to catalogue and 16mm films to digitize, and that the museum is working to create a permanent Teenie Harris presence in the Oakland-based institution.Working very closely over a two-year period with an advisory committee from Pittsburgh’s African American community that consists of members with art and education backgrounds, Lippincott and the exhibition team examined tens of thousands of images, and provided direction for the exhibition’s content, themes, and goals. "The exhibition is organized in a way that I've never done before. I did not work alone on this; the advisory was very important. I learned so much from them. They addressed the story arc of his images and how they relate to national issues and developments, and they also looked at him as a wonderful artists and selected the seven themes."Harris grew up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a neighborhood once dubbed “the crossroads of the world.” A serious photographer from the age of 18, Teenie started his professional photographic career in 1937, opening a studio and completing freelance assignments. In 1941, Harris was appointed staff photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, the nation’s preeminent black newsweekly. His images were disseminated nationally and played a pivotal role in how African Americans visualized themselves.In spite of the segregationist policies and attitudes of mid-century America, Harris documented an innovative and thriving black urban community. His images captured daily life in the Hill—from weddings, funerals and family portraits, to parades, church events and graduations—as well as visits by renowned historic figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Paul Robeson, John F. Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lena Horne, and Muhammad Ali. Harris also depicted the country’s finest jazz musicians—including Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Ahmad Jamal, Sarah Vaughan, and Duke Ellington—photographing these legends alongside Pittsburgh bartenders, waitresses and dancing crowds.Throughout his long and prolific career, Harris also photographed two legendary Negro League baseball teams, the Pittsburgh Crawfords (which Harris co-founded in the mid-1920s) and Homestead Grays, as well as African American major league baseball players like Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente who helped to end baseball’s color barrier. Additional momentous civil rights related events captured by Harris include the Double V campaign from the World War II era ("victory abroad, victory for racial equality at home") and militant protests that took place across America throughout the late 1950s and 1960s.To further extend the context surrounding Harris's work and legacy, the final gallery of the exhibition presents selections by 12 local photographers and photography experts, who each selected one work to discuss for its outstanding qualities in art, formalism, photography, thematic content, and historical relevance. The 16 x 20” prints reflect each image's power as historical documents and relics, art pieces and teachable moments. The gallery also features a large-scale map showing the places Harris lived, worked and photographed and a multimedia presentation called “Artist at Work” that demonstrates Harris’s technical skill and artistic vision, shows how newspapers and publishers cropped and edited his work in order to tell a story, and shares audio recordings by Harris's family, friends, colleagues, and models.The museum also collaborated with the University of Pittsburgh Press to produIn addition to the exhibition, archive and website, the ce an illustrated book of new and unpublished scholarship that provides a major contribution to the fields of American and African American art, culture and history. Following its debut in Pittsburgh, the exhibition will travel to Chicago’s Harold Washington Library Center, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama, and the Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library in Georgia.