Here at CMOA we’re gearing up for a new exhibition, Antoine Catala: Distant Feel, one of the more challenging yet rewarding shows to come through our Forum Gallery. Catala is interested in how images provoke feelings, notably empathy. But, he asks, how should we express empathy online, to strangers? Now that we’re able to see thousands of images per day through Internet-connected devices, what are the emotional ramifications?
It’s a potentially limitless line of inquiry. It’s also difficult to communicate. “So,” several of us thought, “what if we plan some sort of live demonstration for the whole city of Pittsburgh?”
The beacon atop Gulf Tower came to mind immediately. Six stories tall, and pyramid-shaped, the Art Deco-inspired structure has had one lighting scheme or another since it first opened in 1932. In 2012, a new set of LED bulbs enabled the lighting to change drastically, and its weather program feeds directly from KDKA through an Internet connection. We could do something similar, except around emotional responses to images. It seemed perfect. Hence the Gulf Tower Project was born.
The death of Fabienne Cherisma, from the series Haiti, 2010, © Nathan Weber/NBW Photo.
When Fabienne Cherisma was shot and killed by a police officer for looting in the aftermath of Haiti’s cataclysmic earthquake of 2010, Nathan Weber was there to capture the scene on camera, as seen in January’s This Picture selection. But Weber’s photograph shows us an event that seems tragic on more than one level, fanning the flames of an old controversy: When should a documentary photographer put down the camera and lend a helping hand?
In his own commissioned response to this photograph, Fred Ritchin challenges the trope of the photographer-as-vulture, a sensation-seeker who tries to make a buck on someone else’s misfortune. Maybe the real issue, Ritchin argues, is the way the photograph is being used. When a single photographic moment is made to stand in for an event of lasting duration, we lose the benefit of the full story, the before-and-after that brackets every newsworthy event. And, perhaps unfairly, that single and oft-heralded decisive moment gets blown out of proportion as a result. Given the possibilities of the digital environment, it is now easier than ever to provide additional context to the interested reader. But the impact of the single iconic photograph under a front-page headline – whether in print or online – is undeniable. It’s a useful tool for selling a story. And since the photographer often has little control over how his or her image is placed in that story, is the entire news media industry at fault for making a single image stand in for a nuanced event? Or do we, as digitally-savvy readers, have a responsibility to seek out the relevant context and build a fuller picture for ourselves?
A Man and His Dog, Lower Hill District, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, c. 1981. Photograph by Mark Clayton Southers, taken during his tenure as chief photographer at the New Pittsburgh Courier.
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.
Sticker commemorating a George Kuchar screening event hosted by The Orgone Archive and The Andy Warhol Museum on April 5, 1996. From the Department of Film and Video archive at Carnegie Museum of Art.
Next Thursday, Andrew Lampert, Curator of Collections at Anthology Film Archives, will be visiting Carnegie Museum of Art to present Towering Turrets of Tomorrow Land: The Films and Writings of George Kuchar. Lampert’s visit is part of our ongoing DoubleExposure series, in which curators, artists, archivists, and experts come to CMOA to consult on our Time-Based Media Project and present on a topic in their wheelhouse. Lampert will be discussing his recent book on George Kuchar, The George Kuchar Reader (Primary Information, 2014); reading excerpts from the filmmaker’s personal notebooks, and showing five rarely seen 16mm works: Eclipse of the Sun Virgin (1967, 15 min.), Power of the Press (1977, 16 min.), Forever and Always (1978, 20 min.), and Yolanda (1981, 22 min.).
George Kuchar was among the many artists who visited the museum to screen and discuss films during the 1970s and 1980s. He was well-known for his campy, sardonic style, and today his name is synonymous with the development of US experimental film, especially the camp genre. Kuchar began making films as a child with his twin brother Mike and continued creating throughout his life, producing a body of nearly 350 films and videos. His art is often comical but ingenuous in its criticism of culture and daily life. Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966), which is perhaps his best-known work, depicts the dilemmas of an independent filmmaker as he attempts to film his lead actress naked while she resists his demands. Like his other films, it is self-reflective and critiques the artificiality of the filmmaking process. Kuchar was also well-known for his ability to produce art on little or no budget, and he helped generate a whole new genre of independent, low-budget movie-making—think YouTube and amateur film on the Internet. In preparation for Lampert’s program next week, we dug into the Department of Film and Video archive at CMOA to find artifacts from George Kuchar’s time in Pittsburgh and found some wonderful pieces of his legacy tucked away in our records.
Charles “Teenie” Harris, group portrait from left: C. Dolores Tucker, Alma Speed Fox presenting “Daisy Lampkin Award” bowl to Wilhelmina Byrd Brown and Mary Gloster at Women’s Auxiliary of NAACP dinner dance at the Roosevelt Hotel, February 1967. Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund.
When I agreed to write this essay, I knew it had to center around a conversation with Teenie Harris Photographs: Civil Rights Perspectives guest curator Alma Speed Fox. At 91 years old, she’s fought for civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBT rights for over 75 years.
Alma was a friend of my grandmother, Georgetta Holmes Stevens, aka “Big George.” And she’s my uncle Tim Stevens’s “Civil Rights Mother.”
I remember her attending one of my Big George oral history readings. I told a story about my grandmother inspecting my elbows to make sure I was using lotion regularly. Alma shared how back in the day, after making lemonade, black women sat their elbows in the lemon peels to lighten them. It was the only time you were allowed to put your elbows on the table.
But I’d never talked one-on-one with Alma. When she agreed to talk with me, she asked a rhetorical question: “Why, after all this work, haven’t black people come further?” Before I could answer, Alma asked if I’d heard of Derrick Bell.