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Teenie Harris: The Lens That Rescued the Legacy

Iconic Pittsburgh Courier photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris rescued the broken oral tradition of our African ancestors through his magnificent and captivating photographic images. I’m quite sure that innately he knew that it was his duty to perform these tasks. I’m assuming subconsciously he knew this; however, I’m not so sure he could have imagined his work’s magnitude. We are often unaware that history is being made by our everyday actions.

That’s one of the most beautiful things about being a photojournalist. As a photojournalist, your job is to capture moments in time to tell the story at hand. However the work you do puts a time stamp on moments in life for all of eternity. From the perspective of one who has enjoyed that very same position during the eighties and early nineties, I can honestly say that it was a great honor and privilege to be part of our African American community in such an intimate way.

Mr. Harris had the nickname “One Shot Teenie” for a reason. Whereas the modern-day photographer can zip off multiple frames per second, and occasionally use a flash, they’re not faced with the task of popping a very hot flash bulb out of their camera, catching it, and putting it in their pocket all while covering an event like Mr. Harris. Positioning himself to get that one great shot took a tremendous amount of skill and great timing. Pre-digital newspaper photographers were caught up in the daily ritual of running from assignment to assignment, press conferences, churches, schools, and city hall, all while zipping in and out of the darkroom, mixing chemicals, D 76, Dektol, and many others. I view this aspect of their daily grind as photographers as the lost art of developing film by hand. During that time, we were adept at being low level chemists and time management experts. Taking a picture on your smart phone these days pretty much demonstrates just how far we have come technologically and artistically.

Today’s modern African American photojournalist, although equipped with more modern and sophisticated equipment and no longer needing the use of a darkroom, still faces the same moral decisions when covering the current civil rights climate. With the onslaught of police brutality and inner city violence, covering the news can still be traumatizing. Civil rights as we know it is an ongoing struggle for equality. From grass roots meetings and press conferences to full-fledged protest marches, the role of the newspaper photographer has always been courageous, dangerous, and necessary. Yet it hits close to home and to the heart when, as an African American, one is experiencing the struggle for change from an observer and documenter’s point of view, while realizing these potential changes will directly affect you and your family.

I can’t speak for all Americans of African descent, but I have never personally been interested in tracing my roots. Unlike Americans of European descent, I’m quite sure that my pure African lineage has been broken by a horrific rape at some point. I know this may seem to be a bit off track; however, I feel it further illustrates the importance of Mr. Harris’s work. As our bloodlines and oral traditions from our African past have been decimated, Mr. Harris has reconnected us with our most recent ancestors visually. Imagine not seeing his rich archive of photos which capture four decades of daily black life?  Close your eyes and you will be left with nothing more than possibly the memory of a family album, what the media has to offer, or maybe just what your imagination can conjure.

As a playwright, on two occasions about a decade ago, I visited the German concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The images that were etched into my mind from that visit assisted in transporting me emotionally to a place I had never been.  For the first time in my entire life I had come close to understanding the Middle Passage of my African ancestors. Being on those grounds, the energy was both psychologically and physically impactful to me not only as an American from African descent, but also as a human being. For the first time I knew just how brutal life for my ancestors could have been during that difficult journey across the Atlantic as well as life on the shores and in the towns of an early America. No wax museum or reconstructed slave ship exhibit, drawing, or historian’s book could place me there—but standing on those grounds in Poland did. Imagine if, somehow, Teenie had captured those Middle Passage images? I wonder just what effect it would have had on our young black boys’ and girls’ minds.

I often talk about the impact the works of famed Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson have had on us all, how his rich characters and dialogue have populated the stages of regional and Broadway theaters for the last 30 years; how Mr. Wilson’s depiction of black life has given multitudes of white theatregoers a much better understanding and appreciation of black life; and how this new awareness has indeed assisted in the election of our first black president. The works of Charles “Teenie” Harris have that very same effect. Rescued from the obscurity of his Point Breeze cellar, his images have brought back decades of connections, and a vital awakening, recognition, and appreciation of black life. Mr. Harris has done a great deed in keeping us connected to our most recent past. Through the good, not so good, and even painful news stories he’s covered, Mr. Harris has encapsulated black life for all to enjoy for generations to come. We see these images and we smile, laugh, cry, and wonder about his subjects, their lives, and the world in which we live.

mark-clayton-southers_1981
Mark Clayton Southers, A Man and His Dog, Lower Hill District, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, c. 1981. Photographed by Southers during his tenure as chief photographer at the New Pittsburgh Courier.

Mark Clayton Southers is an award-winning playwright, photographer, scenic designer, theatrical producer, and stage director. He is the founder and Producing Artistic Director of the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company where he has produced over 140 full-length and one-act plays, including August Wilson’s entire ten play Pittsburgh Century Cycle. A four-time recipient of the AACTA Onyx award for best director, Southers was also the recipient of the 2004 Theodore Ward prize at Columbia College in Chicago for his play Ma Noah. He and his family reside in Pittsburgh’s historic Hill District. This is the latest installment in the Teenie Harris Essay Series, a complement to the exhibition Teenie Harris Photographs: Civil Rights Perspectives, which is on view in the Lobby Gallery at Carnegie Museum of Art until March 31, 2015.