Black Life, In Black And White; Court Ruling Frees the Legacy Of a Tireless News Photographer
A huge trove of photographs that depict half a century of black American life is about to go on view here, giving a vivid face to communities seldom explored by outsiders.
The 84,000 images were controlled by a private dealer for more than a decade. Now, because of a court decision, they have been moved to a museum and are being excitedly reviewed by scholars.
The works are the legacy of Charles H. (Teenie) Harris, a staff photographer for The Pittsburgh Courier who ceaselessly chronicled daily existence on the Hill, then the center of black life in Pittsburgh. Apparently he never threw away a negative, from the day he started freelancing in the early 1930’s until he died in 1998.
The archive is breathtaking in scope: images range from a beaming Duke Ellington signing autographs to a child immersed in a comic book, from a proud shoemaker behind his bench to President John F. Kennedy giving a speech in Pittsburgh while a police sharpshooter stands in silhouette atop a nearby building.
An exhibition devoted to Harris’s work is to open on Feb. 24 at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pa., near Pittsburgh. It will be the first time his pictures have been printed, framed and displayed as fine art.
”We’re just beginning to see the richness of these works and of this whole collection,” said Barbara L. Jones, the museum curator. ”The 82 we’re showing have been thoughtfully selected, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. This is going to generate a lot of interest. It seems to me that it could grow into a very substantial exhibition somewhere.”
A documentary filmmaker based in Pittsburgh, Kenneth Love, recently completed an hourlong documentary on Harris’s life that will have its premiere screening at the Byham Theater here Friday night. The film is called ”One Shot: The Life and Work of Teenie Harris.” Harris was known for snapping just a single frame at events he covered.
Harris was born in Pittsburgh in 1908 and became interested in photography as a young man. The Courier, where he found a home, was for decades one of the country’s leading minority newspapers, with special editions for various parts of the United States and for Africa, the Caribbean and the Philippines. High-quality prints of Harris’s work that have been made in recent weeks for the exhibition suggest a photographer who combined a positive outlook with deep human empathy.
Among the warmest and most life-affirming are the depictions of women, children and families. There are people at work, too: a train engineer, a coal miner, an auto mechanic, a telephone operator. Harris also captured street scenes of all sorts, from a Shriner’s parade to a group of children cavorting under the spray of a fire hydrant. Hundreds of the pictures document life in baseball’s Negro League.
Every American president from Harry S. Truman to Richard M. Nixon is in the collection. So are Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali, Eleanor Roosevelt and Mother Hale, Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige. Jazz figures include Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Lena Horne, Charlie Parker and an Ahmad Jamal so small that he sits atop a trumpet case on a chair in order to reach the piano keys.
In one picture, two elegantly dressed women picket a store in downtown Pittsburgh with neatly written signs. One reads: ”Isaly’s discriminate against Negroes by refusing to hire them as counter clerks.”
In 1986, Harris, who could not read well, signed an agreement with a Pittsburgh photo dealer, Dennis Morgan, who paid him $3,000, promised him more in royalties and took almost his entire archive.
Shortly before Harris died at age 89, he initiated a court action seeking to recover his archive. A national law firm with a large Pittsburgh office, Reed Smith L.L.P., represented him and later his family without charge.
One lawyer at the firm, Cynthia E. Kernick, became passionately involved in the case, devoting thousands of hours to redeem what she said was a deathbed pledge to Harris.
”I told him I would do my best for him, but he said: ‘No, that’s not enough. You have to promise you’ll get the negatives back,’ ” Ms. Kernick recalled. ”I had never promised to win a case before, but in the end I decided to made Teenie that promise.”
Victory came when a federal jury found that Mr. Morgan had breached the original contract and violated Harris’s copyright by selling his images illegally. The jury assessed him $4.3 million in actual and punitive damages, but an agreement was eventually reached under which the Harris family dropped its monetary claim in exchange for return of the archive.
After receiving the archive, the family placed it in temporary storage at the Carnegie Museum of Art here. Family members hope that the Carnegie or some other museum will one day become the archive’s permanent home.
A curator at the Carnegie, Louise Lippincott, said that cataloging the Harris archive and restoring negatives that have deteriorated would be expensive and take years.
”There’s no question about how important his work is, both for local history and for the national African-American experience,” Ms. Lippincott said. ”The documentation of daily life is absolutely critically important.”
”It’s trickier when you get into the question of where to place him as a serious or self-conscious photographic artist,” she said. ”He was untrained, he never considered himself an artist, and he was never deeply immersed in the technical aspects of photography. But he did take many pictures just because he wanted to. He had a great eye for composition, and he was extremely good at showing the character of an event or place or person. His work is fascinating and compelling to look at.”
Most of Mr. Harris’s subjects are hard-working and confident.
”Showing people in squalor didn’t contribute anything to the community,” said Frank Bolden, a former city editor of The Courier who was Harris’s boss for more than a decade. ”We showed the productive side of our people. We covered robberies, but I always ran them on inside pages.”
Mr. Bolden, now nearly 90, said Harris was ”not just a photographer but a real photojournalist, because every picture he took had a story behind it.”
”Once I sent him down to Kaufmann’s department store to get a picture of the first black Santa Claus there, and here’s what he brought back,” Mr. Bolden said. He pulled out a print showing a group of giggling black children playing on the department store floor, one of them delightedly drinking soda from a bottle.
”I got angry when I saw this. I told him: ‘How could you miss the black Santa Claus? That was history!’ He said, ‘Well, so is this.’ Later I came to see that it was the better picture.”
Only the most basic cataloging of Harris’s archive has been completed, but what has surfaced impresses some scholars.
”This has got to be by far the largest documentation of African-American urban life in existence anywhere,” said Laurence A. Glasco, who teaches black history at the University of Pittsburgh. ”There’s nothing that approaches it in depth and variety of topics.”
He offered some comparisons. ”James Van Der Zee is very well known and took a lot of pictures, but many of them were in the studio, so you don’t get that documentation of street life,” Mr. Glasco said. ”Gordon Parks might have had a more artistic eye. But for a historical re-creation of the social life and atmosphere of a community, you can’t find anything like what Harris left. Parks took pictures you could write pages about. Harris’s don’t have such deeply imbedded meaning, but taken as a collective they’re far richer.”
Stanley Nelson, a New York-based filmmaker who has made several documentaries on African-American life, described the collection as incomparable.
”I was totally blown away by his photos,” Mr. Nelson said. ”Van Der Zee’s pictures tend to be very studied, and Gordon Parks was not really working from the community. Neither of them conveyed the black experience the way Teenie did. To me, this guy was a genius. When people start to understand his achievement, they’ll be knocked out.”
With the exhibition imminent and Harris on the threshold of greater prominence in modern American photography, his eldest son returned to Pittsburgh on a recent day for a sentimental tour of the Hill. Once a vibrant community with streets lined by small businesses, the neighborhood has been scarred by riots and urban decay and is coming back to life only slowly.
Ms. Kernick, the lawyer, was at the wheel, and the son, Charles A. Harris, who is 73 and lives in Washington, sat in the back seat holding a folder full of his father’s pictures. He directed Ms. Kernick to his childhood haunts, places that his father photographed over the decades. Some buildings in the photographs were intact, others were boarded up, and others were gone altogether, replaced by new housing or vacant lots.
”I don’t like the word humble; maybe modest is the better word to describe him,” Mr. Harris said of his father. ”He thought of himself as an average guy, but he was more than that. He never looked for the limelight. Later in his life, after he saw that people appreciated what he was doing, he knew that what he had done was good.”