Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Check it out: One Shot Harris: The Photographs of Charles "Teenie" Harris

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
5.0 out of 5 stars Historic Record of the Crossroads of the World, December 18, 2003

This review is from: One Shot Harris: The Photographs of Charles "Teenie" Harris (Hardcover)
The 120 photographs in One Shot Harris depict the struggle of African Americans against discrimination and show the strength and dignity which they displayed in creating their own unique community institutions. Although the days are gone when a corner of Pittsburgh's Hill District, Wylie and ? were known as the Crossroads of the World - a casualty of "urban renewal" in the form of the Civic Arena, Harris's photographs survive as a reminder and a record of that time. Charles Harris' familiarity with this community infuses his work with a uniquely intimate sense of the neighborhood and its people. A recent exhibit of his work at the Westmoreland Museum of Art even had the title "Spirit of the Community."

Charles "One Shot" or "Teenie" Harris was born in Pittsburgh and his work as staff photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier and as an operator of his own photographic studio spanning from the 1930s to the 1970s, provide us with a glimpse into the lives of people in the Hill during that time. His work shows many different aspects of society, including people at work, at play - mostly in the restaurants or clubs, such as the Crawford Grill and the Hurricane. Harris also captured musical celebrities such as Louis Armstrong (pg. 145), Duke Ellington (pg. 146), Billy Eckstine (pg. 151, 153, 155), Lena Horne (pg. 150), Sarah Vaughan (pg. 151), Sam Cooke (pg. 152), Cab Calloway (pg. 156), Ray Charles (pg. 158), Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie (both on pg. 155). All of these musicians flocked to the Hill's clubs to jam. Harris also captured legendary Negro League baseball players of the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords (pgs.96-99), for whom Harris himself played for when they were known as the Crawford Colored Giants. His images also show unique scenes with legendary boxers Muhammad Ali (pg. 92) and Joe Louis (pg. 93, 156). Politicians such as Eleanor Roosevelt (pg. 84), John F. Kennedy (pg. 88-89), Martin Luther King, Jr. (pg.91), Dwight Eisenhower (pg. 86) and Richard Nixon (pg. 87) are shown interacting with the public.

Literary and social critic Stanley Crouch gives the photographs a context by presenting an overview of Pittsburgh's history that emphasizes the importance of African American people and especially by identifying the significant migration of African Americans from the South to the North, filling the jobs of the recently departed soldiers in factories whose production was crucial for the war efforts. Between 1910 and 1930 the African American population of Pittsburgh grew by some 120 percent, from 25,600 to 55,000. Although the Pittsburgh's population has declined significantly since 1910, its African American population has increased from 25,600 to over 86,000. These photographs help document the most vibrant period in Pittsburgh's growing African American community. His essay displays a meticulous recognition of details in photographs, making even the most common image an interesting story. Crouch also identifies the significant figures in jazz that emerged from this community to affect the international Jazz scene in an important way. Several photographs capture Pittsburgh's own Billy Eckstine, the best of which show him with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie (pg. 155). A young George Benson (pg. 157) sprawls across a piano and a smiling 11-year-old Ahmad Jamal plays the piano for an adoring crowd (pg. 26).

Deborah Willis, professor of photography and imaging at New York University's Tisch School of Arts and the author of Reflections in Black and, gives us the background on "Teenie" or "One Shot," the origins of his nicknames, how he came to be a photographer, and the social and cultural background and significance of his work. She points out that the sincerity of the people Harris photographed was a product of a trust that they placed in Harris which resulted in a depiction of African Americans with great dignity that was absent from the mainstream "White" press. Willis quotes former Pittsburgh Courier editor Frank Bolden who described Harris as a storyteller and said his "pictures all told a story." Some of the significant stories are hidden below the surface. For example, the men counting coins (pg. 69), were most likely doing so for number runners like Gus Greenlee (pg. 142) or Woogie Harris (pg. 156) - the brother of "One Shot" who loaned him the money to start is own studio. These men served as neighborhood bankers for African Americans who could not secure loans from banks and the example of Charles Harris was much like that of many other successful Black businessmen in that they needed to borrow from these men to get their start. The Black Businessmen's parade was a large neighborhood parade that gave African Americans an opportunity to display pride in their community and its legacy lives in these photographs of streets packed with onlookers (pg. 44-46). The Crystal Barbershop shows the classic barbershop owned by "Woogie" Harris (pg. 132).

The story of Pittsburgh's Hill District and its African American community has and will continue to become an important subject of research. The publication of "One Shot Harris" presents us with a look into work of one the greatest visual documentarians of that community and urban life in the Northern United States during the period of time that is now known as "The Great Migration," signaling a shift in the African American population from rural Southern communities to urban Northern cities. This work is the immediate product of the Carnegie Museum of Arts acquisition of the over 80,000 negatives that represent the Charles "Teenie" Harris photographic archive. Its publication provides us with a glimpse of things to come and a look into some of the visual stories of the Hill's past. The 135 images in this book remind us of why the Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay once described Pittsburgh's Hill District as "The Crossroads of the World."

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