Black History Month: Preserving The Work Of Teenie Harris

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – On any given day, there is an exhibit featuring the photographs of famed photographer Teenie Harris at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The current exhibit highlights jazz pianist Errol Garner and jazz performances in the Hill District.

“My job is to protect, preserve and store the materials of Teenie Harris and his art,” said Dominique Luster, archivist for the Teenie Harris collection.

The Carnegie Museum acquired the collection in 2001 and created an endowed position to organize the nearly 80,000 images, prints and evidence of Harris’ work.

“My first and highest priority is the physical preservation of the materials,” said Luster. “Literally, the chemical emulsion would fall apart over time without care.  My job is to stop that degradation of those materials as much as possible.”

Harris was born in Pittsburgh in 1908 and lived in the Hill District. He’s best known for his images that captured everyday life of African-Americans in much of the 20th century. Luster works to digitize Harris’ images and about 60,000 can be viewed online.

Luster says her job goes beyond just organizing and researching.

“The best part about my job,” she said, “is that I get to day-to-day, actively preserve the history of African-Americans in this country…The birthday parties, the church on Sunday, the after school program, the basketball, Little Leagues, those are the documents that I get to help preserve every day.”

Prior to becoming the Teenie Harris archivist, Luster said she studied the work of the Pittsburgh Courier photographer.

“But, then I moved to Pittsburgh, to get my graduate degree, and I started hearing about Teenie Harris as a person,” Luster said.

Though Luster never met Teenie Harris who passed away at age 89, she met his son, Little Teenie, who passed last year.

“The last thing that Little Teenie said to me was, ‘keep up the good work’ and that’s something that really stuck with me,” Luster said.

And she believes, Teenie Harris and Little Teenie would appreciate what she’s doing.

“I think he would be proud, I hope he would be proud. What Teenie wanted based off the stories I’ve been told of people who knew him personally, was that Teenie really wanted his work to come here because he knew that the museum could really protect it and keep it save and keep it preserved,” she said.

To view the Teenie Harris photographs online, visit http://teenie.cmoa.org/.

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