ALLISON KEYES, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes. Michel Martin is away.
Coming up, we're going to hear from Jermaine Jackson about some of the music that inspires him. And not surprisingly, some of those songs come from his late brother, Michael.
But first, we turn to an artist whose life's work isn't music, it's photography. Charles "Teenie" Harris' camera was never far from his side as he lived and worked in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. From the 1930s to the '70s, Teenie trained his lens on Pittsburgh's predominantly black Hill District and chronicled everything from children at play to racial strife, and of course the famous people who passed through his town. Lena Horne, Muhammad Ali and President John F. Kennedy, among others.
When Teenie died in 1998, he left behind nearly 100,000 images. The Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh has mounted an exhibition of his work. To talk about it and his life and times, I'm joined by Lulu Lippincott. She's curator of fine arts for the museum and for the exhibition. She joins us from WRCT in Pittsburgh. Thanks for joining us.
LULU LIPPINCOTT: Hello.
KEYES: Talk to us a bit about why you thought it was so important to put this exhibition on.
LIPPINCOTT: We had several reasons. First of all, we own the entire archive of his photographs and it is our job, our obligation to the photographer and his family to make the work accessible and known to the rest of the country.
Secondly, we love these photographs. They are beautiful, they are moving, and they are a unique document of daily life in African-American community in the middle of the 20th century.
KEYES: There actually was some concern from the African-American community about the Carnegie getting this collection, wasn't there?
LIPPINCOTT: There was some concern at the beginning, which we worked very hard to address. The community was thrilled that we were taking care of the negatives and that we would be keeping the records and making the documentation of the collection. But they were concerned about the stories we might tell from those images. They were saying: You weren't there. You don't have the history. It's our history.
It was really a sobering but fabulous moment because we took the community at their word and said: Fine. In that case, you have to tell us the history. You have to interpret these photographs for us.
And for the last 10 years, we've been working closely with members of the African-American community, including the artist's family, his friends, his colleagues, the people who were in the photographs themselves and his colleagues at the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper who commissioned many of these images. And their stories are the ones that we tell in the exhibition.
KEYES: When you got this huge archive of pictures, how on earth did you go about identifying all the people in them after all of these years?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KEYES: I mean, that's got to be not the easiest task.
LIPPINCOTT: It's taken a long time and we had a lot of help. We figured that the fastest ay to go about this was to work digitally. So, we scanned everything. We started with the earliest images from the 1930s and we've made it so far up to the early 1970s. And as those images were scanned, we've put them on our website. They've gone out on the Internet. And on our website, people can actually write in the information that they know about the people in these images. So, we have been getting information from Vienna and Paris and San Francisco, as well as from Pittsburgh.
The artist's family, his five children, were incredibly helpful in sharing their memories, identifying people and places. And then the elders in Pittsburgh's African-American community have come in. We have gone to them. We record their memories. We make them look at thousands of photographs. And it's amazing how these images stimulate their memories of the past and these amazing stories come out.
KEYES: Talk to us a bit about some of the style. I mean, some of the photos, such as the one with Louis Armstrong and the Pittsburgh Courier reporter, George Brown, look spontaneous, but others look very formally posed, like Lena Horne in her dressing room from 1944.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KEYES: Is there a typical Teenie Harris photograph?
LIPPINCOTT: He had a variety of different strategies and styles depending on the assignment or what he was trying to accomplish. He did an awful lot of society portraiture and studio portraiture, and those are always beautifully posed and beautifully lit. He had a routine to get people to relax. He was very particular about where they stood in terms of who stood next to who, who was standing, who was sitting. So, those images are very, very carefully thought out, both aesthetically and socially.
KEYES: What was this routine? That sounds interesting.
LIPPINCOTT: Well, everyone talks about how he dressed. He looked like Cary Grant as a - well, as a newspaper reporter. I mean, he had the fedora hat and the overcoat and the big camera with the big flash and a pocket full of flash bulbs. And he would show up and people say he had a routine. They said he was partly sort of comic. They said he would do a little dance and he would chat and joke with the people he was supposed to photograph.
And as he was looking at them carefully - and they say, he was looking at us to check out the angles and the lighting and the background and then he would put us in position. He would tease people a little bit so they'd relax. And then when they were ready, he'd pull the camera up and snap.
He was always telling people, I'm just taking one photograph, so you have to get it right. The flash bulbs and the film were expensive and he was not going to waste them on duplicate shots. So, every now and then, we find photographs where somebody closed their eyes and he did have to reshoot, but it was remarkably rare.
KEYES: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
I'm speaking with the curator of fine arts at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Lulu Lippincott. And we're talking about a new exhibition of photographs for one of the country's most respected African-American photographers, Charles "Teenie" Harris.
I want to ask you, what are some of your favorites among the photos?
LIPPINCOTT: Oh, that's like asking someone who their favorite child is. I love all of them. And I will dodge that question by talking about two. One of them is our audience's favorite. And it's one of the classics in his work. It's called "Little Boy Boxer," and it was taken in 1945, we believe. And it is a portrait of a little boy. He may be seven or eight years old and he's sitting in the corner of a boxing arena in a great big, dark, cavernous gym, the close-up is on him. You can see a few people in the background and he...
KEYES: And a little tear on his face.
LIPPINCOTT: And he's wearing the satin trunks and he's smiling and he's crying at the same time. And the boxing gloves on his hands are as big as his head. They're huge. You wonder how he had the strength to even lift them up, much less throw a punch. And the boy's expression is sort of a mixture of happiness and pain or fear. It's unforgettable. And that's, by far, the hands down popular favorite.
KEYES: Interesting. You worked alongside him for a couple of years. Tell us a bit about what he was like as a person.
LIPPINCOTT: So, I knew him the last two years of his life. He would come to my office about once or twice a month. We had acquired about 25 or 30 of his photographs. And in order to catalog them, I thought, I'm just going to call up the artist and ask what these are about and he would come into the office. We would go through the images together.
He would tell the stories that he thought were proper and appropriate for me to know about and there were clearly some that he didn't want to tell me. And this was the basis of our entire approach to the archives, which was to get the people most closely involved, bring them in and ask them questions. And I started it with him back in 1996 and '97.
KEYES: Talk to us a bit about what the Hill District was like during Teenie's career.
LIPPINCOTT: The Hill District is this beautiful, beautiful location right above downtown Pittsburgh with a great view and, at the time that he lived there, wonderful and remarkable access to all parts of the city. It was traditionally the part of Pittsburgh that new immigrants arrived at and lived in as they were getting settled and assimilated and established.
At the time he was there, it was a community that was Italian, Jewish, black, some Germans, there's a small Muslim population. It was a very, very interesting mixed bag of a neighborhood that, over the course of his life, became increasingly black. Following redevelopment in the late 1950s and '60s, it became almost entirely black.
It was a thriving community in the sense that there were small businesses, there were solid community groups, institutions, churches, clubs, schools that had powerful impact on everybody who lived there.
It was physically dilapidated. There's very little urban renewal or renovation or even upkeep until the really devastating years in the late '50s and '60s.
KEYES: I'm curious. In some of those photos, many of which are African-Americans, they're also - he's got pictures of many demonstrations against discrimination, but then he's also got pictures that kind of show racial harmony. There's one of a black woman feeding two black children and a white child. He's got pictures of white steel workers. I mean, how was he able to, you know, traverse the lines between all of these different communities, or ethnic groups, I should say?
LIPPINCOTT: Well, many of them were living together in the Hill District. So, in the case of the little girls at the table, they were probably friends. They're probably neighbors and were, you know, encountering each other on the streets and at school on a daily basis. And sometimes, these friendships survived into adulthood. In other cases, there are very poignant stories of, at a certain point, families separating on the basis of race, saying, you're too old to play with this child now.
It was common for the races to be mixing socially in this neighborhood in the '40s and '50s. Then beginning in the '50s, there were real efforts to break them - segregation. And so the steel worker photographs are very much about the advances that black workers were making into the higher ranks of the predominantly white unions.
KEYES: I wonder if one of your goals with this exhibition is to get Teenie Harris the attention that he didn't get during his life.
LIPPINCOTT: Absolutely. He's been known and loved in Pittsburgh ever since the 1930s, but his reputation outside the city is just beginning to spread.
KEYES: What is the thing that you hope people take away from this? What story are you hoping to tell with these pictures?
LIPPINCOTT: I think that - I hope people come away with the impression that I had after my first long exposure to Teenie Harris photographs, which was the feeling that, while I was looking at those photographs, I had been living in another time and place that was a wonderful time and place. He conveys in a way that I've never experienced before in photographs the immediate experience of being in a different place, a different time. And because of his particular character and attitude, you see it through his eyes and he thought it was wonderful.
And so you come - every direction I've had with his photographs leaves me feeling, I wish I had been there. I wish I had been there, but I can't. This is the closest I can come.
KEYES: Exactly. Lulu Lippincott is curator of fine arts at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and she joined us from WRCT in Pittsburgh. Thanks so much.
LIPPINCOTT: Thank you.
KEYES: You can see some of Teenie's photographs on NPR's photo blog, the Picture Show on NPR.org.