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Pa. exhibit showcases legendary black photographer by Kevin Begos

PITTSBURGH- Charles “Teenie” Harris had a photographic mission: going beyond the obvious or sensational to cap- ture the essence of daily African- American life in the 20th century For more than 40 years, Harris - as lead photographer of the influential Pittsburgh Courier newspaper - took almost 80,000 pictures of people from all walks: presi- dents, housewives, sports stars, babies, civil rights leaders and even cross-dress- ing drag queens. Now, a new exhibit and online catalog is showing the depth of Harris’ work, an archive showing a major artistic achieve- ment that influenced people around the country.

“His shots of everyday people are

amazing. People seem to kind of jump off the page,” said Stanley Nelson, an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and MacArthur genius grant winner who has made a number of acclaimed films on African-American artists, business peo- ple, and workers. “They don’t have the sense of some- body kind of looking in and spying on the community. For me his pictures are very unique,” Nelson said.

Harris was a gifted basketball player as a young man, and helped start a Negro League baseball team, too. His brother was Pittsburgh’s biggest bookie, and that gave him access to people throughout the city.

But he found his mission at the

Pittsburgh Courier, which was distributed all over the country via a network of

Pullman train porters. Through the paper Harris had endless opportunities to chron- icle daily life and to meet the rich, famous, and powerful.

Harris photographed Richard Nixon, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and many musical greats, such as Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington.

“That was the black national paper of record at the time,” said Laurence Glasco, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh.

Many people stopped by the Courier

offices because of its clout with African- Americans, Glasco said. Yet Harris nei- ther pandered to nor looked down on celebrities, he added. “He really didn’t have a cult of celebri- ty. He wouldn’t cross a street to shake a

celebrity’s hand. He was interested in them, but he really saw them as just peo- ple. And that really comes out in his pho- tographs,” Glasco said. Ayoung Muhammad Ali, for example, is shown picking up his mother and hold- ing her in his arms.

“He had an equal opportunity lens,”

recalled Teenie’s son, Charles Harris. “He just liked people.”

The partnership with the Courier was a perfect match, since its reporters and edi- tors were also pushing for equal rights. And true to Pittsburgh traditions, Teenie Harris was a hard worker, on call virtual- ly 24-hours a day. A key piece of history that Harris and the Courier covered heavily was African- Americans who served in World War II and returned home demanding that they

Charles “Teenie” Harris

be accorded rights equal to white soldiers, sailors, and airmen.

The Carnegie Museum of Art pur- chased Harris’ entire collection in 2001, through the Heinz Family Fund. The exhibit at the museum includes almost 1000 photographs, slide shows, and a jazz soundtrack commissioned especially for the show, which is up until next April. It’s also scheduled to travel to Chicago, Birmingham, Alabama, and Atlanta in the future. AP

10 Chicago Defender • • November 30-December 6, 2011

AP/Charles Teenie Harris via Carnegie Museum of Art

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