Nina Simone and the Blurred Line Between Public and Private Life
In December of 1968, during one of Walt Harper’s famed jazz workshops, Charles “Teenie” Harris captured one of the more arresting photographs of his career. The black-and-white image shows Nina Simone sitting at her piano, one time out of maybe ten thousand in her life, facing a small crowd in the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel in Downtown Pittsburgh. In the foreground, just beyond the platform’s precipice, there is stark blackness. Up on stage, Simone is shrouded in darkness, save for the stage light reflecting off of her piano. A circle of spotlight shines on a curtain in the background and provides contrast for her silhouette. The light enshrines her, and despite the shadow-puppet outline of her profile, Simone is not a projection, she’s the real thing.
Closer examination reveals that the image is in fact layered—a story within a story. The eerily underdeveloped figure of a headless guitar player lurks over Simone’s shoulder like a specter, and her head is doubled, along with the guitar in the man’s hands and the thin silver microphones angled upwards toward her mouth. Both of Simone’s heads are bowed down, focused on the piano keys. Her beaded hoop earrings are motionless mid-jangle. Her afro is a halo. In the glow of the spotlight, the twinned busts of Simone’s head are united as one. This double exposure is either an intentional technique meant to convey the mesmerizing intensity of Simone’s show, or the happiest accident. Despite being a still image, it’s dynamic, not only because of the haptic moment frozen in this blur of photographic emulsion, but also because of what it communicates to the viewer about Simone. Even the title, Double exposure of Nina Simone on piano, and guitar player, performing on stage of Hilton Hotel ballroom, reads like a stream-of-consciousness poem—an utterance lost in the ether of the moment.
Harris’s spectral photograph of Simone was a key image in last summer’s Teenie Harris Photographs: Great Performances, an ambitious exhibition split into separate subtitled delineations: “Onstage,” presented at the August Wilson Center, and “Offstage,” at Carnegie Museum of Art. Curated by the late actor and Hill District native Bill Nunn, the exhibition showcased a panoply of artists and performers photographed by Harris over a four-decade period. Nunn’s selection of images was particularly captivating due to his inclusion of well-known performers such as Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, and Paul Robeson alongside Pittsburgh luminaries like Billy Eckstine and Walt Harper. He also made certain to showcase the city’s cadre of lesser-known actors and musicians as a fitting tribute to Pittsburgh’s thriving African American performing arts community. No stranger to a great performance, Nunn, whose turn as Radio Raheem in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing remains just as resonant today as it was when the film debuted in 1989, brought a measured point of view to the curation of Harris’s images. By refraining from an encyclopedic look at black Pittsburgh between 1935 and 1975, Nunn’s nuanced selections offered intimate portraits of people known and unknown; those larger than life on stage and screen and those who performed on evenings and weekends opposite full-time jobs and family responsibilities.
Toni Morrison’s The Black Book put forth the idea that black American history and culture were dense and profound, and bound together in a patchwork pattern, not unlike a family photo album. The Black Book ethos is evident in the nearly 80,000 photos Harris took during his career. When considering his photography, it’s important to note that his role as staff photographer at the Pittsburgh Courier afforded him unparalleled access to not only Pittsburgh’s black community, but the broader city at large. Like a close friend or loved one, Harris was never far, and his omnipresence is particularly evident in his images of the performing arts. There are pictures of stars like Ethel Waters and Cab Calloway in action alongside separate captures of young kids smiling for the camera after a school play. Images featuring performers in blackface, mixed in with others that show men dressed in Egyptian garb. There are women whose hair is shellacked in Nu-Nile slickness, and cross-dressers posed arm-in-arm for a portrait.
In another photograph from the collection, Harry Belafonte is caught laughing, framed alone in a typical 1950s living room, where it seems he is actually living, not simply acting like he is. A turned-off TV in the background, just off to his right, serves as more than just a conventional counterpoise to Belafonte; it’s a significant prop that reminds viewers of his other life outside of that living room as a celebrated actor and singer. In another, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson stands with a troupe of black men he performed with in Gilbert and Sullivan’s musical comedy The Hot Mikado staged at the Nixon Theater. What a joy to see Robinson among other black actors, and not just as Shirley Temple’s sidekick. Paul Robeson sings at the Central Baptist Church, but because Harris snapped mid-utterance, it could appear without the caption that he, ever the activist, was giving a speech. A great image of Ahmad Jamal as a child, when he was known by Fritz Jones, his given name, also reiterates the splendor of Harris’s “double exposure” gem, because we are seeing two people in one body simultaneously: the child prodigy Jones and the prodigious piano genius we come to know as Ahmad Jamal. Although the legends draw the eye, the heart of the collection is in the unheralded performers, the quotidian actors and singers. These are the people who knew well the chitlin’ circuit and the queer black spaces of the era.
Of all these photographs, however, Harris’s image of Nina Simone is both beautiful and distant yet boldly immediate. It offers such a poignant representation, especially given the context of her tumultuous personal life and how that notoriety and discord sometimes leeched onstage. Two documentary films on the life of Simone were released in 2015, Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Miss Simone? and Jeff L. Lieberman’s The Amazing Nina Simone. A third film, the controversial Nina, directed by Cynthia Mort, hit theaters last April after several years in post-production limbo. The films make the case that Simone was battling emotional demons, and felt at times overworked, abused, and underappreciated. But this photograph precedes those works by almost 50 years. (Nikki Giovanni’s spoken-word piece, “Poem for Aretha/Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” is a companion piece of art that advocates for put upon black stars.) Harris was on the pulse of things back then, and this picture is as canonical as any cinematic rendering of Simone’s life.
That shot does not exclusively show whatever darkness is associated with Simone, and Teenie Harris did not only shoot stars in turmoil. He knew the trouble they’d seen, but he also knew more, and his body of work demonstrates that depth of knowledge. Harris had a knack for capturing artists when they weren’t looking, and troubling the line between private and public—onstage and off. (What’s the difference, really, between both of those zones when a camera is pointed at you?) In this subtle way, Harris was much like the magicians he sometimes photographed, delighting viewers by showing the slippage between persona and the vulnerable figures underneath. There are straight-ahead pictures of ensemble casts grinning after what must’ve been great shows, there are the oblique photos taken from inconspicuous angles, and then there are the alchemical ones like the “double exposure” wonder. All demonstrate the tradition of black performance in the hub that Pittsburgh was and still is, before it became world famous as August Wilson’s hometown and favorite setting.
At its core, the photographs in this collection offer a double exposure of black entertainment life in Pittsburgh: the big stars and the regional ones, the queer and the straight, professionals and amateurs, those posed in stage attire, and those laid back and at home, in repose. Like many of the other creatives Harris shot, Simone’s duality is pronounced, but this image is more direct. The caption printed in the January 4, 1969 edition of the Pittsburgh Courier says it perfectly:
Seeing Double—Although she may sound like two people, there is only one Nina Simone, the ‘High Priestess of Soul,’ who wove her magical spell over a small but appreciative audience in the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel last Friday night. The occasion was the last of the current season of Walt Harper Jazz Workshops. It could have been the flu or lack of money after the heavy Christmas shopping spending that held down the crowd. But those on hand enjoyed a rare musical treat. Miss Simone was superb.
What’s most striking about the image is that it fixates on Simone at her best, doing her work. The doubling effect hints at her offstage complexity, but mostly it adds a conjuring quality to the musical performance. And because the two Simones are both looking at the piano keys and the shadow appears to be singing, you see her virtuosity summed in one hyper-focused second. If Nina Simone was the “High Priestess of Soul,” Teenie Harris was, that time, a diviner of her own genius soul.