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    Pittsburgh through the lens of Teenie Harris

    More than a year ago, two photos by Teenie Harris were up for sale at Swann Auction Galleries in New York. The photos slipped past me, because I didn’t know his name.

    One was a photo of a woman with dolls that didn’t sell and the other, a woman with a saxophone, which sold for $500. I’m certain that I closely examined the woman with the saxophone, because it’s one of my most favorite instruments. But since the photo wasn’t signed James Van Der Zee or Cornelius Battey, I’m sure I just moved on.

    Practicing on a voting machine, circa 1944-1945. Photo by Charles "Teenie" Harris.

    His name wasn’t as recognizable to me as the locally familiar John W. Mosley of Philadelphia or Addison Scurlock and sons of Washington, DC, all of whom focused their cameras on African Americans at a time when most images of us were heartless and damaging.

    So, how did Charles “Teenie” Harris get by me without a whimper?

    I wasn’t sure, but he certainly won’t anymore. The Carnegie Museum of Art has mounted an exhibition “Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story” of about 1,000 of his photographs. It opened on Oct. 29, 2011, and will be around until April 7, 2012, when it hits the road for Chicago; Birmingham, AL, and Atlanta. The exhibit includes slideshows and an accompanying jazz soundtrack.

    A friend told me about the exhibit, and I found the Carnegie website with his works. His photos are amazing. Some of them reminded me of the many family photos of Americans of all types that end up on the auction tables – some loose, others glued inside photo albums, all tossed by relatives who thought little of their value.

    Harris and his contemporaries were more expansive with their picture-taking than the rest of us. Working for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s oldest black newspapers, he photographed a large and diverse group of people who saw their faces on the pages of the newpaper. The museum purchased 80,000 negatives from his estate in 2001.

    Like Mosley and Scurlock, Harris captured a piece of American life that the mainstream ignored. They all showed that black people lived and loved, shopped and partied, went to church and school, got married and had families, and worked and died.

    The Homestead Grays playing at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, circa 1950. Photo by Charles "Teenie" Harris.

    He also shot photos of Pittsburgh-area Negro Leagues baseball teams, including the Homestead Grays, along with such celebrities and famous people as Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.

    According to a timeline on the Carnegie website, Harris was offered a job with the Courier in 1936 but turned it down because the pay was too low. A year later, he opened a photography studio, and his first credited photo ran in the newspaper. For the next 40 years, he worked out of his studio as well as for the Courier. He died in 1998.

    I’m sure there were plenty of other African American photographers like Harris, Mosley and Scurlock. Tell me about the ones in your city.

    Duke Ellington signing autographs, circa 1944. Photo by Charles "Teenie" Harris.


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    1. I can sell you a Teenie Harris “artist print”. Teenie almost never signed his prints, they are stamped on the back HARRIS STUDIO. The print would most probably be a 4×5, maybe a 5×7, proof of a person, there is a 5×7 of a beautiful woman that I have in mind. The majority of Teenie work were portraits.

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