Pa. exhibit showcases legendary black photographer

By Kevin Begos

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Nov. 27 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

In this 1940 photo taken by Pittsburgh photographer Charles "Teenie" Harris, and provided by the Carnegie Museum of Art, Harris poses for a self-portrait in his hill district photo studio in Pittsburgh. The "Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story" exhibit runs through April 7, 2012, at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

Charles Teenie Harris via Carnegie Museum of Art, Associated Press

PITTSBURGH — Charles "Teenie" Harris had a photographic mission: going beyond the obvious or sensational to capture the essence of daily African-American life in the 20th century

For more than 40 years, Harris — as lead photographer of the influential Pittsburgh Courier newspaper — took almost 80,000 pictures of people from all walks: presidents, housewives, sports stars, babies, civil rights leaders and even cross-dressing drag queens.

Now, a new exhibit and online catalog is showing the depth of Harris' work, an archive showing a major artistic achievement that influenced people around the country.

"His shots of everyday people are amazing. People seem to kind of jump off the page," said Stanley Nelson, an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and MacArthur genius grant winner who has made a number of acclaimed films on African-American artists, business people, and workers.

"They don't have the sense of somebody kind of looking in and spying on the community. For me his pictures are very unique," Nelson said.

Harris was a gifted basketball player as a young man, and helped start a Negro League baseball team, too. His brother was Pittsburgh's biggest bookie, and that gave him access to people throughout the city.

But he found his mission at the Pittsburgh Courier, which was distributed all over the country via a network of Pullman train porters. Through the paper Harris had endless opportunities to chronicle daily life and to meet the rich, famous, and powerful.

Harris photographed Richard Nixon, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and many musical greats, such as Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington.

"That was the black national paper of record at the time," said Laurence Glasco, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh.

Many people stopped by the Courier offices because of its clout with African-Americans, Glasco said. Yet Harris neither pandered to nor looked down on celebrities, he added.

"He really didn't have a cult of celebrity. He wouldn't cross a street to shake a celebrity's hand. He was interested in them, but he really saw them as just people. And that really comes out in his photographs," Glasco said.

A young Muhammad Ali, for example, is shown picking up his mother and holding her in his arms.

"He had an equal opportunity lens," recalled Teenie's son, Charles Harris. "He just liked people."

The partnership with the Courier was a perfect match, since its reporters and editors were also pushing for equal rights. And true to Pittsburgh traditions, Teenie Harris was a hard worker, on call virtually 24-hours a day.

"No matter what time it was, they could call. A lot of times he didn't sleep," his son said.

Louise Lippincott, the Carnegie Museum of Art Curator, worked closely with Harris in the last years of his life.

"He had a very strong personal desire to complete a positive view of African-Americans and counter the negative stereotypes in the white press. On the other hand, there's nothing sugarcoated," said Lippincott.

Glasco adds that Harris took pictures of very poor people without exaggerating their situation.

"You can look at them and say, 'These are real people; they happen to be very poor.' They're more than those clothes they're wearing. They were first and foremost a person."

One picture shows a little girl with a big smile sitting on the floor of a newsstand, reading a comic book with a small dog on her lap.

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