by Susan Constanse
Over the past ten years, there have been several Pittsburgh area exhibits of Teenie Harris’s photographs, ranging from adorning the walls of lobbies and libraries, to galleries in the Cultural District. The August Wilson Center has a continuing exhibit, where Harris’s photographs can be viewed any time. Special presentations, like the Warhol’s “Carryin’ On” exhibit or Space’s Then and Now, concentrated on celebrity, musicians, and underground performers in Pittsburgh’s nightlife.
None of those come close to the breadth of “An American Story,” mounted at the Carnegie Museum and drawn from their immense collection. The Teenie Harris archive has been an ongoing project for the Carnegie Museum since 2001, when the museum acquired the extensive collection of negatives from the Harris family. Over the intervening years, the archive was scanned and organized into a collection of images, spanning nearly four decades of professional photojournalism.
Mr. Harris was a staff photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, now the New Pittsburgh Courier. The paper was established in 1907, to principally address the news and events of the Black community. Mr. Harris joined their staff in 1941, remaining with the paper until his retirement in 1975. Although the archive is dominated by his work as a photojournalist, some of his freelance work as a portrait and event photographer is included.
In “An American Story,” the curators have selected images that they believe are most representative of Teenie Harris’ body of work. The exhibit is a combination of projected images, organized thematically, printed images presented chronologically, and computer access to the full archive. There are only a dozen photographs, printed with traditional photography techniques, in the presentation.
Honing the entire archive of nearly 80,000 negative to a manageable 1,000, the exhibit is a fast-paced record of Pittsburgh’s Black community over four decades. Progressing chronologically, one can observe the changes in fashion and appearance, interspersed with the records of notable events and celebrity that give the intimate portrayals of family and community life a historical context. In one section you might find wedding pictures next to portraits.
One entire gallery of the exhibit is used for the projection of images, larger than life, and organized around themes, including Home and Gatherings. A very comprehensive selection of images is organized under the heading of the “Rise & Fall of the Crawford Grill,” many of which are of jazz legends, like Louis Armstrong, that performed in or visited this noted Pittsburgh club.
Giving even more depth to the exhibit is the access through networked computers to the digital version of the exhibit. By simply typing in the exhibition number, you can read about the image; particulars about the individuals and events are included in the description. You can access the same version over the intertubes, on the Teenie Harris Archive. The museum is looking for more information about their collection and encourages visitors to supply answers wherever they can about images in the archive. Bonus: an audio tour supplement has been arranged for phone access, so while you are touring the exhibit you can navigate the phone system and find out more about a selection of images.
While the online exhibition archive is limited to the images in the “An American Story” exhibit, the museum’s online database contains all of the scans completed to date. The archive is an amazing resource, comprised of over 75,000 images and searchable by date and theme. The entire archive is available in the Carnegie Museum site, with more to be added.
There are several special events arranged around the exhibit that you can still take advantage of before the show closes in April. The exhibit will travel to Chicago, Atlanta, and Birmingham, Alabama after its Pittsburgh debut.
Carnegie Museum of Art
Dates: Through April 7, 2012
Hours: Tues-Sat, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m; Sunday, noon-5 p.m.
Admission: Adults – $15; Seniors – $12l Students/Children – $11; Members and Children under 3 – Free
Raising Voices: Community Choirs Gospel Concert
Date & Time: February 26, 2012 from 4:30–6 p.m.
Where & Cost: Carnegie Music Hall; Free; reception follows
Gospel Choirs from Pittsburgh churches raise their voices in a community concert performed against the backdrop of projected Harris images of their churches.
Cave Canem Poetry Reading
Date & Time: March 29, 2012 from 7–8 p.m.
Carnegie Museum of Art collaborates with Cave Canem for an evening of poetry reading and conversation led by African American poets inspired by Teenie Harris, Photographer.
Susan Constanse is a painter, living and working in Pittsburgh. Examples of her work can be viewed on her website.