Charles "Teenie" Harris didn't need to wander far during his life as a photographer. His hometown of Pittsburgh supplied enough images to sustain a career. For more than four decades, Harris was one of the principal photographers for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation's pre-eminent black newspapers.
"[Teenie] has been known and loved in Pittsburgh ever since the 1930s, but his reputation outside the city is just beginning to spread," says Lulu Lippincott, curator of a new exhibition of Teenie Harris' photos at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
Beginning in the 1930s, his work in Pittsburgh's storied Hill District produced a rich portrait of the African-American experience rarely displayed in Harris' contemporary American media. It's a portrait that shows both the joys and struggles of mid-20th-century urban life.
Photos of men drinking in bars and children crowding around a summer swimming pool appear alongside scenes of civil rights protests and union-backed demonstrations.
"[Teenie] conveys in a way that I've never experienced before in photographs, the immediate experience of being in a different place, a different time," says Lippincott.
His work may be understood as a celebration of the working class, but Harris didn't shy away from opportunities to show life on the other side of the tracks. His portfolio is dotted with the occasional image of some of the biggest names of the era, including Louis Armstrong, Muhammad Ali and John F. Kennedy.
"He was a studio photographer, photojournalist and advertising photographer who helped preserve African-American culture from family life to social life," Deborah Willis, a photography professor at New York University, writes in the exhibition's companion book.
One of Harris' best-loved photos shows a young boy, perhaps 7 or 8, slumped in the corner of a boxing ring, his hands weighed down by a pair of oversized gloves. The boy gazes into the camera and appears to smile as a single tear trickles down his cheek. It's a perfect distillation of Harris' catalog, where life's joyful moments are shaded — but never eclipsed — by the shadow of conflict.
The exhibition is scheduled to make stops in Chicago, Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala.
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