When we talk to people who knew Teenie Harris personally we hear the same thing over and over again: Teenie was everywhere, always taking pictures. We asked his family if he ever slept since the other part of taking pictures required long hours in the darkroom. They said he managed to keep on going with his trademark positive energy despite little sleep at times. Then we wondered, what about his down time, did he ever put down the camera? Continue reading
I was recently looking at some of the photographs in the exhibition Architecture + Photography with curatorial assistant Alyssum Skjeie, who co-organized the show with me, when I saw an image that was so familiar it felt like I’d been transported back to an art history class. The photograph shows the vestibule and staircase of the Laurentian Library (or Biblioteca Laurenziana) in Florence, which was designed by Michelangelo and constructed by him and others in several “campaigns” between 1524 and 1559. The staircase is dramatic and idiosyncratic—it’s been described as looking like a lava flow—and the photograph here is a version of the “money shot” that’s shown in virtually every source on Renaissance architecture. Seeing that image again evoked the same kind of feeling I experience when looking at photographs from trips I’ve taken.
My reaction isn’t unique or remarkable: a great deal of what we know or remember about the world is what’s been captured by us or for us through images. It’s fair to say that this is especially true of the constructed environment—the buildings and other structures we humans build for ourselves. Most of us don’t get to literally travel the world to see its architectural wonders, and not even the highest-resolution, largest-scale photograph can provide the physical experience of space that’s so crucial to truly understanding a building or site. So we rely on pictures—and have done so ever since photography was invented. Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, one of the medium’s two principal founders, originally trained as an architect, and buildings were a favorite subject for experimentation in the field’s early days.
This points to the central proposition of Architecture + Photography: the mere fact that a building appears in a photograph doesn’t mean that that image is about architecture. In other words, it’s not necessarily “architectural photography.” For example, the pictorial content of Richard Stoner’s Why We Fight, September 18, 1990 (1990) is obviously the oil tanks in the lower left corner and the huge, somewhat agitated and ominous sky that looms over them. But does the picture aim to elucidate ideas about oil tanks as architecture? The title certainly suggests otherwise. (Titles: another great topic for dissection!)
By contrast, the subject of Ezra Stoller’s work is, unequivocally, buildings. One of the top architectural photographers in the twentieth century, Stoller shot many of the most iconic images of modernist postwar American architecture. He was keenly aware of the photographer’s ability to shape viewers’ understanding of architectural imagery and attempted to communicate through a two-dimensional medium the experience one might have of a building or place. An example is this somewhat enigmatic photograph of the McMath Solar Telescope (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 1962) at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona: Stoller doesn’t show the entire structure, but instead focuses on its colossal scale and extraordinary setting. You can easily place yourself in that photograph, sharing the sensations we imagine the man in the photograph having.
The Laurentian Library, along with Stoner’s and Stoller’s images, are but three points on the spectrum of photographers’ intentions in presenting architectural imagery in their work. Come see the show while it’s open (through May 26)! We would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.
On Saturday February 15, 2014, the Thelma Lovette YMCA in Pittsburgh’s Hill District celebrated its second year with an outstanding Black History month event, centering on the theme “From Which We Came.” The Teenie Harris Archive was invited to display the myriads of photos which Teenie shot in and around the old Centre Avenue YMCA, bearing witness that this original community center was, in fact, the “hub of the Hill” in its heyday.
Established in 1923, it was noted that the first YMCA (at the Corner of Centre Avenue and Francis Street) opened before both the NAACP and the Urban League held branches in Pittsburgh. The many distinguished speakers discussed the fact that the YMCA had been THE place to meet for not just sports events, but organization meetings, society soirees, cotillions, youth groups, plays, and much more. Dr. Leon Haley, who has written a book on the history of the Centre Avenue YMCA, gave an insightful presentation on what went on in the Y, for many decades. There was a Black Civil War Drum Corps reenactment led by John Ford, a performance by the Miller School of African Dance and Drum Troop, as well as elected officials such as city councilman Daniel Lavelle and Bill Robinson giving commendations. Thelma Lovette YMCA executive director, Aaron Gibson, gave a wonderful speech voicing both his, and other board members hopes—that the new facility will come to reflect the positive community bonding of the older facility.
In the coming months, the Teenie Harris Archive will have a permanent display of several historic images on the internal walls of the new Y. However, for this event, the Harris Archive displayed 4 poster boards with over 70 images (and two notebooks with even more images) of people enjoying the facilities of the old Y. One book centered solely on Teenie Harris capturing the philanthropic work of Mrs. Thelma Lovette in his lens. As a result of our display and chatting with guests, the Harris Archive received more than 30 new identifications of people and events. Many were very sentimental about the images of swimmers, basketball games, ping pong and boxing matches, dance classes, voter registration drives, and teen parties. I even found one of my own mother, doing “calisthenics” in the 1940s. Patrons were eager to share their treasured memories of what they loved about going to the Y. (I was particularly amused to hear about the many courtships begun at this central location.) So once again I’m happy to say the Teenie Harris Archive offered insight and reflection on a most historic Pittsburgh venue.
The Rev. Donald McIlvane, a retired Roman Catholic priest and staunch ally to the underserved, passed away February 16, 2014. Father McIlvane was not only a worldwide religious leader, but unquestionably, a compassionate Civil Rights soldier, as well. Although Rev. McIlvane was an unlikely candidate to become a radical priest, having come from a well-to-do family, he served and lived alongside the needy, suffering many similar life experiences, even to the point of being mugged.
He was once quoted as saying “Martin Luther King had more influence on me than any leader in my life.” In fact he was so influenced by Dr. King, that he joined him in Civil Rights protests nationwide. His human rights efforts spanned six decades, including monitoring South Africa’s post-apartheid election, to which Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected leader.
Here in Pittsburgh, Rev. McIlvane was often seen in his clerical collar, taking part in meetings, hearings, rallies, or protest marches—all in the quest for human rights. On a personal note, I knew Father McIlvane as a youngster. I remember how diligently he worked beside my father and other local Civil Rights leaders. He impressed me as a person who would do anything to see that justice was given to everyone, be they young, old, white, black, rich or poor—he loved all people, and they felt that from him. Teenie Harris captures the essence of this dedicated servant in these dynamic photographs.
Race: Are We So Different? opens March 29 at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and will include Teenie Harris images from Carnegie Museum of Art’s collection as a collaboration between the two museums. This photographic project will recreate the “Pittsburghers Speak Up” column which ran from the 1950s to 70s in the preeminent African American newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier. In the original column, Teenie’s photos accompanied interviews by reporter George Barbour (approx. 1957–1963). In reflection of this team, current KDKA TV anchor and producer Lynne Hayes-Freeland will serve as the community curator and interviewer, and Pittsburgh artist Nikkia Margaret Hall will photograph people as they respond to some of the same questions posed by and published in the Courier several decades ago. Teenie’s historic portraits and the responses of subjects will be presented alongside their contemporary counterparts in the exhibition’s Community Voices Gallery. Exhibition visitors will be encouraged to post their own opinions and responses to the questions on how race impacts their daily lives.
In an interview with archive staff in 2011, Mr. Barbour described his work with Teenie Harris:
“Yeah, man on the street, that was a lot of fun… so every week, I think it was on—when was it? It was the first of the week, Monday or Tuesday, we’d go Downtown, and the editor Frank Bolden would give us a question to ask. And so we’d just go along and I’d introduce myself to some people, and say: ‘I’m George Barbour, reporter from the Pittsburgh Courier and we’re doing an on-the-street survey, and we’d like very much to talk with you and find out your opinion about uh, what do you think about city government?’ And then the person would start talking away and Teenie would snap the picture, and we’d have about twelve people… I can’t think of being refused it one time—we always had a way of being able to get the confidence of people in this town. Yeah, it was very popular…”
Harris captured more than 3,500 people over two decades for this column. This street portraiture is possibly some of the most spontaneous work he made, yet much of it is quite striking for the way he stood quite close to his subjects and composed the frame. Unlike his studio clients or many of the subjects of his photojournalistic work, most of the people on the street were less likely to know Teenie personally. Their gaze is often direct, occasionally grumpy, frequently warm, and more often than not revealing that Harris had gained their trust.
Barbour interviewed Pittsburghers going about their daily lives Downtown and in other neighborhoods, with questions ranging from subjects that seem ridiculous from today’s perspective, to the city’s everlasting love of its sports teams, to events and issues still unresolved and pertinent now.
Mr. James Embry (Chauncey Street and Wylie Avenue) and Mr. Jack Mager (Sloan Street, McKees Rocks) were part of the “Pittsburghers Speak Up” column published in the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper, May 24, 1958, pg. A1, with the question: “Do you approve of women bartenders?”
Mr. Embry’s answer reads: “No, and one reason is there is too much notoriety, too many risks, and too filthy a job for women, in fact, the way I look at it, if a woman has to go into a bar just as a customer, let her take a table and booth and be seated and served.”
Mr. Mager’s answer reads: “Absolutely not, and mainly because a guy who goes to the bar likes to talk men’s talk. With women around, you can’t talk as you would like to without offending the women.”
Iola Palmer, housewife (Independence Street), was part of the “Pittsburghers Speak Up” column published in the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper, May 30, 1959, pg. A1, with the question: “Do you think single or married women make better teachers for elementary grades in public schools? Do you think that married men should teach in elementary grades?”
Her answer reads: “I believe that young single women would make the better teachers. This would open up more jobs for this class. In my opinion, a married woman should not have to work because she has her husband to support her. Frankly, I can’t say why, but I prefer ladies over men to teach elementary grades.”
Ronald Anderson (Rivermont Drive) was part of the “Pittsburghers Speak Up” column published in the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper, July 5, 1958, pg. 1, with the question: “What do you think is wrong with the Pittsburgh Pirates? Do you think that they are using their best ball players at all times?”
His answer reads: “The trouble seems to be something which the Pirates go through once a year. I think that if the men on the field were changed around, it would help. Some of the men on the bench could be playing and they probably could be doing as good a job as some of those on the field. Baker and Stevens are two of the men who could be used.”
Elizabeth G. Henderson, state field representative of the Fair Employment Practices Commission, was part of the “Pittsburghers Speak Up” column published in the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper, November 28, 1959, pg. A1, with the question: “Do you think race relations are improved, are worse, or about the same today as compared to pre-World War II years?”
Her answer reads: “They are definitely improved, although there is much to be done.”
Benjamin Lewis, unemployed (Roberts Street), was part of the “Pittsburghers Speak Up” column published in the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper, January 31, 1959, pg. 32, with the question: “Do you believe in capital punishment? If so, do you think that it should be imposed on convicted defendants under the age of 21?”
His answer reads: “No. I do not believe in capital punishment. And the reason is my religion. I’m a member of the Church of God in Christ. I believe that a person should be tried and sentenced for brutal crimes, if convicted, but the death penalty should not be inflicted. In my opinion, it is all right for a person to be sentenced to life in prison. And, in that way he will pay many times for his crime.”