There once was a time when African-Americans in the Pittsburgh area, particularly the Hill District, seemed to be living an American dream that has all but died in today’s society. They had expectations, futures filled with promise … and Charles “Teenie” Harris captured it all on film.
|PAST TO PRESENT—Teenie Harris photos of the past was on display at AWC with current photos of these people today photographed by Rebecca Droke and Bill Wade. (Photo by J.L. Martello)
The exhibit honoring Harris is on display in the August Wilson Center for African American Culture Downtown until February 16, 2012. It was always intended to be a companion piece to the montage set to music that’s on display until April 8, 2012, in the Scaife Galleries at the Carnegie Museum of Art, according to AWC’s artistic director of visual arts and exhibits Cecile Shellman. But the idea of making “Teenie Memories,” as the exhibit is called, a then-and-now piece was the brain child of Post-Gazette photographers Rebecca Droke and Bill Wade, who supplied the new photographs to go along with those from AWC’s own collection.
“This concept of having contemporary photographs of former subjects of Teenie Harris’ photos was perfectly timed,” said Shellman during an interview at AWC. “And we really wanted to partner with the Carnegie.”
Nestled in a narrow hallway on the center’s ground floor, the photographs document the early days of people like former NAACP president Tim Stevens, former Pittsburgh City Councilman Sala Udin and human rights activist Alma Speed Fox. Right alongside those are photos of Harris’ sons Lionel and Ira Vann, who still live in the Pittsburgh area, young married couples who are now blissful old married couples, college students who are now leaders in their community. All were immortalized courtesy of the observant eye and precise timing of “One Shot,” a nick name given to him by former Pittsburgh Mayor David Lawrence.
“I hope [the exhibit] will contemporize the whole Teenie Harris experience, because Teenie Harris is memory in the minds of so many people who lived on the Hill, who interacted with Teenie Harris years ago. As children or even babies some people were photographed, and they’re now in their 50s and 60s. So, this is not only a way of not only honoring Teenie but also the subjects of his photographs. Many of them have gone on to accomplish some amazing things that you don’t necessarily hear about.”
Many of Harris’ photographs were taken as part of his work as a photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier from 1936 until 1975. During that time, he gained entrance into African-American homes and lives that remained closed to others. Harris always presented African-Americans and their lifestyles in a positive manner. Studio portraitist James Van Der Zee and photojournalist Gordon Parks were more well-known during their careers. Harris, on the other hand, didn’t receive recognition beyond his Pittsburgh beat until after his death in 1998 at the age 89.
“Beyond the artistic properties of the photographs themselves and beyond the historical aspect, the nostalgia factor, I want to give the message that at the center, we do foster and promote positive depictions of African-Americans living and working and enjoying the city just as we want everyone to enjoy and use and be involved in the August Wilson Center,” Shellman said.
The AWC exhibit will conclude with a closing reception on the evening of Feb. 16. Both the exhibit and the closing reception are free to the public.
(For more information, visit the center’s website at AugustWilsonCenter.org or call 412-258-2700.)