- Teenie Harris, Photographer: Image, Memory, History
Teenie Harris, Photographer: Image, Memory, History, by Cheryl Finley, Laurence Glasco, and Joe W. Trotter, with an introduction by Deborah Willis, is a beautiful book. An oversized volume with striking black and white reproductions, the book includes three informative essays that introduce readers to the African American photographer Charles "Teenie" Harris's life and work, situating his photographs within a broader history of mid-twentieth century photography, and contextualizing them within the cultural history of Harris's hometown, Pittsburgh. Over the course of a career that spanned from the 1930s to the 1970s, Harris worked as a studio photographer, a commercial photographer, and a photojournalist, making close to 80,000 images. In Teenie Harris, Photographer, 100 large black and white plates represent the scope of Harris's photographs, which document a wide spectrum of everyday African American life in Pittsburgh in the mid-twentieth century.
Laurence Glasco's contribution to the book, "An American Life, an American Story: Charles 'Teenie' Harris and Images of Black Pittsburgh," is a biographical essay that sketches Harris's family life as a child, his mother's business, the Masio Hotel, his admiration for his prosperous older brother "Woogie," his adult experiences as a father and husband, and the advent of his career as a photographer. Glasco informs readers that Harris began his work in photography as a freelancer for Flash Newspicture Magazine, a Washington, D.C.-based magazine founded in 1937 that catered to an urban African American elite. In 1938 Harris began to freelance for the Pittsburgh Courier, an African American newspaper, and in 1941 he became the Courier's first staff photographer (11). In 1938 he opened Flash Studio, later called Harris Studio, which he operated until 1953, all the while maintaining his position at the Courier, and continuing to do freelance work (14). Harris was active with the Courier until 1976, publishing his last image in the newspaper in 1983.
In the second essay in the book, "Harris, History, and the Hill: Black Pittsburgh in the Twentieth Century," Joe W. Trotter situates Harris's photographs within Pittsburgh's changing urban and political landscape from the 1930s to the 1970s. He paints a picture of the Hill District, Pittsburgh's largely African American neighborhood, as a thriving community supported by African American institutions and social and political networks in the post-World War II era. In addition to African American churches, fraternal orders, and social clubs, the Hill was also home to nightclubs, Steel City [End Page 378] Bank, Negro League baseball teams, the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper, and branches of the NAACP and National Urban League. Trotter demonstrates how the early activism of the NAACP and NUL before and after World War II laid the foundation for the modern civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and early 1970s.
Photographs of Harris himself included in the book show the photographer dressed stylishly in a suit, sporting a camera with a large flash attachment. As Cheryl Finley notes in her essay "The Practice of Everyday Life," Harris was particularly keen on flash photography and its ability fully to illuminate interior scenes. According to Finley, "Harris had been dismayed by photographs of black people in the mainstream press that lacked definition and were literally 'blacked out' by high contrast, and never corrected with lower levels of contrast or more brightness," and the flash enabled him to flatten highlights and lowlights, and to open up a wider spectrum of gray and an overall evenness of tone (51). Presumably, Harris also liked the flash because it accorded with the quickness of his own methods—"One Shot Harris" could get the shot in a flash. (As Glasco suggests, he also tried to conserve his materials, using only one shot, because he had to pay for flashes and film, even when on assignment for the Pittsburgh Courier .) Symbolically the flash also "meant definition, clarity, brightness, reflection, and...