Photo: Charles “Teenie” Harris; Bandleader and musician Billy Eckstine posing with Cadillac convertible, on street in residential neighborhood, June 1947; Heinz Family Fund, Carnegie Museum of Art
Beautiful women, big dogs, and big cars. These are the things Charles “Teenie” Harris loved most of all. Born in 1908 in Pittsburgh, PA, Harris was the son of hotel owners in the city’s historic Hill District, the cultural center of African-American life in the city. In the early 1930s, Harris purchased his first camera and opened a photography studio, and began chronicling daily life for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of America’s oldest black newspapers.
Nicknamed “One Shot” because he rarely made subjects sit through retakes, Harris took more than 80,000 photographs during his fifty-year career, documenting the city of Pittsburgh. Unlike his contemporaries, Harris was a working class photographer who kept a circumscribed beat, making his body of work among the most complete documentation of African-American life in the twentieth century.
The Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, is now home to the Teenie Harris Archive, has in its collection more than 2,000 images of automobiles taken between 1935-1975. From this remarkable oeuvre, the Museum has selected 25 pictures for Teenie Harris Photographs: Cars, on view now through October 31, 2015.
In these carefully selected photographs, we come to understand Harris’ adoration of the automobile and the way in which it defined a way of life that was distinctly American. The cars themselves are examples of the magic that happens when innovation meets design. The Cadillacs, Dusenbergs, Hudson, and Buicks are stunningly handsome models of mid-twentieth century modernism. Endearingly optimistic icons of the American Dream, the cars in Harris’ photographs show the success of African Americans during segregation.
For over two centuries the Hill District has had a direct relationship with Haitian descendants. By the early nineteenth-century, the Hill consisted of a middle-class of free blacks. By 1910, it attracted populations from across the United States, in particular, the American South. The stable and diverse landscape made the neighborhood ripe for economic development, which is evident in Harris’ photographs of the micro-economy of car dealerships, repair shops, and service stations.
In addition to his depictions of daily life, Harris also photographed celebrities when they came to town. The exhibition includes images of bandleader and musician Billy Eckstine posing with Cadillac convertible, baseball players Willie Mays with his Buick, and Nat King Cole and Maria Cole rising in a black-owned Owl Cab when Pittsburgh taxi services refused black riders.
Also on view is the recently-digitized 16mm film footage from the Archive depicting Harris and his family with their cars. Paired with oral histories by Harris’ children, Lionel Harris, Crystal Harris Pass, and Cheryl Harris Watson, recalling their childhood experiences with their car-loving father, Teenie Harris Photographs: Cars is a beautifully realized tribute to that which bonds us across time.
The exhibition reminds us of the way in which the car becomes the centerpiece for so much of contemporary life. It is here that we can travel as a family from one destination to the next, each car traveling its own private path. It reminds us how we can share these paths, merge and diverge at will, to allow us untold opportunities that exit when we step into the public sphere.
Teenie Harris Photographs: Cars, is on view at The Carnegie Museum of Art now through October 31, 2015.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.