Like many great gifts, this exhibition originates from the cultural powerhouse to our south that many of us feel a little too far away from: Pittsburgh. Coming to New England this summer, the original images shot by Teenie Harris and an accompanying documentary film on his work offer an interesting view of African-American culture in the mid-twentieth century United States. Full disclosure forces me to admit that this exhibition was co-curated, and its accompanying film edited and co-produced, by my little brother Henry Simonds. But, bias aside, the picture and the film are both wonderful.
The Photography Exhibition at the Griffin Museum
Images by Pittsburgh photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris have been compiled for display at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, MA. The show, the town and the photography center are all well worth a visit. The exhibition space is housed in a replica of an old fieldstone grist mill and is situated along a beautiful stretch of river just fifteen minutes north of Cambridge.
Inside, eighty images by Mr. Harris have been displayed in a modern space that allows the viewer to see a full range of the historic and personal aspects of Teenie’s photographs. Harris was a photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier and through his newspaper work became a lasting chronicler of African-American life, both public and private, an eye into activity both local and national. He traveled the workplaces, alleys, ballparks and nightlife of Pittsburgh’s Hill District from 1931 to 1971, a tumultuous period of racial struggle, community development and often joyous celebration for the African-American community in the region and throughout the United States.
Nicknamed “One Shot” by Mayor David L. Lawrence because of his habit of snapping only a single frame of any subject, Harris built a collection of images that is unprecedented in its scope and volume. Whether backstage with Dizzy Gillespie and Lena Horne, in the dugout with Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige, or on the streets of the Hill or Homewood-Brushton, Teenie Harris documented African-American Pittsburgh with his well-crafted photographs. Often quietly beautiful, his images were always hauntingly honest. His images are filled with smiling children, famous jazz musicians and hot dance halls that draw out the vibrant, exciting, and at times the economically harsh realities, of life in Pittsburgh during these volatile decades.
The Film “One Shot: The Life and Work of Teenie Harris”
Accompanying the exhibition is a film that celebrates the art of Teenie Harris and the diversity of African-American culture during his lifetime.
The film “One Shot: The Life and Work of Teenie Harris” is filled with photographs and film clips of daily life. From Cab Callaway to Roberto Clemente, from John F. Kennedy to anonymous children dancing in the streets, Teenie captured moments that beautifully document life in his time.
Since I had fairly open access to the editor and co-producer of the film (my younger brother Henry Simonds), I thought it best to allow him to describe this documentary piece that compliments the exhibition in his own words…
This film is a celebration of Harris’s creative accomplishments and an examination of the people and circumstances at the core of his life’s work. Teenie has had a storied life that put him in close contact with some of the most important newsmakers of the 20th century.
Born in 1908, Harris grew up in a relatively prosperous family in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. “The Hill” was an ethnically diverse, largely working class neighborhood that was home to many of the blue-collar laborers who worked in nearby mills. As a result of the turn-of-the century industrial boom and the subsequent waves of immigration and migration, the population of the Hill grew significantly in the early 1900s.
With an influx of African-Americans from the rural south, and as a
consequence of the realties of racism, the Hill became a haven for the growing black community.
In the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s the Pittsburgh Courier was the most widely circulated minority newspaper in the country. What began as a four-page publication had become a powerful force in journalism, boasting a weekly readership of 350,000 and publishing more than a dozen national editions as well as several international editions. It was considered the greatest disseminator of national and foreign news for African-Americans nationwide. Combining tough, thorough reporting, and politically driven campaigns for equality and fair treatment, the Pittsburgh Courier was an influential voice in the fight against the practices of discrimination and segregation throughout America. The paper showed the reality of black life, countering and disrupting the negative, stereotypical images that appeared in the white press.
Throughout his career, Harris was dedicated to documenting the daily activities of his community. Whether on his own or on assignment for the Courier, he combed the streets of Pittsburgh in search of moments.
His subject matter consisted of everything from baby contests to presidential addresses. It is this broad sweep that gives Teenie’s legacy such comprehensive coverage of the 20th century African-American experience. He was there when we were at war, in peacetime, and again when battle lines were drawn at home in the fight for Civil Rights. All the while, he continued to photograph the mundane and glorious details of a community’s efforts to maintain a normal existence in a time of social and political turmoil.
In 1986, Teenie Harris made the mistake of selling the rights to his negatives for $3,000 to a local [business man] who prospered from his art while Teenie grew old in a state of poverty. While not the focus of the film, the documentary also tells the story of the family’s struggle to get back thousands of negatives and images that this entrepreneur would not return.
The exhibition will be at the Griffin (www.griffinmuseum.org) from now until June 13. The film is being shown at 7:00 pm on Thursday, May 15 at the Griffin and on HBS campus in Aldrich 208 on Thursday, May 8th.