For more than 60 years, Charles “Teenie” Harris (1908 – 1998) lived and worked as a studio photographer, as well as in photojournalism and advertising. He was born in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the city’s cultural centre of African-American life. Harris bought his first camera in the 1930s, opened a photography studio the same year, and specialized in glamour portraits, earning the nickname “One Shot” because he rarely made his subjects sit for a second take. The Teenie Harris archives, housed at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, consists of a formidable number of images (upward of 80,000) that document both the quotidian and the uber-glamourous moments of aspirational working-class Black communities in Pittsburgh. Cutting a Figure: Black Style Through the Lens of Charles “Teenie” Harris offers a selection of images culled from these archives, featuring rare glimpses of the style practices and narratives of African-Americans in Pittsburgh during the 1940s through to the 1970s.
This exhibition marks the first time Harris’ work has been on view in Canada. The show highlights the ways in which Harris captured the various aesthetic styles and sartorial choices of this Black community, marking a sense of presence and self-possession. The images reveal young debutantes, entertainers, schoolgirls, and housewives dressed in the latest fashion trends as an overt means of defining themselves for themselves. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the trove of images featuring members of Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ community, including “cross dressers” and men in drag who were both patrons and performers at local nightclubs such as Little Paris in the 1950s. These images in particular reveal the complete trust his subjects had in Harris. Any spectacle related to outlandish dress is overshadowed by Harris’ intimate and familial treatment of his subjects. Their inclusion as part of Harris’ vast oeuvre not only illuminates a freedom in gender fluid aesthetic articulations, but also a wilful documentation of their presence within the social history of a larger Black community.
The term “cut a figure” means to present oneself in a certain way. The self-portraits of Teenie Harris portray a dashing and confident figure. In one rendition, he wears an elegantly cut pinstriped suit, shined black brogues, and holds a fashionable hat with a cocksure manner—exuding “Black cool.” The notion of “Black cool” also reflects the deeper meanings and aesthetic presence behind Harris’ photographs, as a means for attaining the calm and balance of transcendence in the midst of persistent white supremacy and brutality.
Co-presented with BAND