At Home with Teenie Harris

Charles “Teenie” Harris (1908-1998) was an American photographer who chronicled life in predominately African American neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for the Pittsburgh Courier. Working for the newspaper from 1936 to 1975, Harris shot over 80,000 negatives, making his archive one of the largest and most complete photographic collections of a minority group in the United States. Considered a working class photographer, Harris had his beat in which he frequented the same neighborhoods everyday, most notably The Hill District. The Hill, as it is often referred to as, was the birthplace of, and inspiration for August Wilson’s collection of plays, The Pittsburgh Cycle. Harris showed nearly every single facet of life in his photographs and was nicknamed ‘One Shot’ as he rarely retook an image.

This collection includes images made of home life, both staged and candid. Primarily using a Speed Graphic camera, Harris was able to show these moments in great detail and spontaneity. Ranging from weddings to birthdays, and games to posed shots, these images subvert stereotypes and reaffirm the beauty of life. There are many striking images in Harris’ archive as he photographed major celebrities of his time, but it is in the breadth of images that show everyday lives of ordinary people where he finds his strength.

One moment that is quiet in its beauty shows his young son Ira Vann Harris spraying his brother, Lionel Harris, with a garden hose. In this image, you can see the bottom of Harris’s coat hanging from the fence, suggesting he stumbled upon his children playing in the yard. Another image shows his wife, Elisa Elliott Harris, washing their laughing daughter Crystal Harris as Cheryl “Tiny” Harris stands outside the tub smiling. In a different moment, Harris shows us two young girls being amused by talking with former slave Sabre “Mother” Washington. While so many of these images are staged or shot in a way that would look good in a newspaper, Harris’ genuine connection with his subjects elevates his work and brings his voice into the canon of American documentary photography 

Esther Bubley’s New York City

Esther Bubley (1921-1998) was an American photographer who worked under Roy Stryker at U.S Office of War Information and subsequently the Standard Oil Company. In her long and largely overlooked career, Ms. Bubley created a vast archive of editorial and personal work that captures her subjects quietly and unobtrusively. It’s hard to find images with the subject noticeably aware of her presence. Those who knew her noted her general respect for humanity in the recording of everyday moments in the lives of ordinary people. No doubt an admirer of childhood, Ms. Budley’s images show children often in tender moments. Most striking is an image of Toni Parks, daughter of Gordon Parks, in a bathing suit reaching to put the tips of her toes in water. Framed directly in the center, a crack in a large rock guides the viewer to the white trim of Toni’s bathing suit. It is in images such as that and of a young boy penciling on eyebrows, that show Ms. Bubley’s aim to show children as accurately as possible.

The tendency to view Ms. Budley’s archive with nostalgia for a lost New York is hard to combat, as some of her subjects, namely The Parachute Jump at Coney Island and Third Avenue El, no longer exist. Yet when one moves past such a viewing, , you can begin to see the uninterrupted interactions between people. The views of two woman at Rockefeller Center and two men at the Greyhound Bus Station show such interactions. In her work, Ms. Bubley was able to combine her artistic and journalist eyes, creating many beautiful images such as a man cleaning the Prometheus statue at 30 Rockefeller Center. In this image, the tonal quality of the statue and the worker’s shirt, in addition to their similar poses seem to combine the figures. The artist’s images combine the work of photojournalism with mere observation through the lens to showcase the painful, beautiful, and mundane nuances of living in America.  

Dividing the Rio Grande

In Mari Kon’s “Rio Grande”, she shows us her take of the U.S./Mexico border with precise composition yet ambiguous content. Alternating between black and white and color, Ms. Kon illustrates the complex nature of living in a border town, specifically El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. Reminiscent of The New Topographic movement, Ms. Kon shows us a story of the border that is devoid of people. She collapses the natural landscape with the built world in single frame to disorient us and make us question the role of a border. In frames that could evoke a range of emotions depending on where one lives in relation to the border, these images adhere to a very clear visual language that incorporates a certain dark humor with formalism.

With the exception of the few frames that show people, these views show in large part, what human activity has created. They subtly allude to the arbitrariness of borders, morphing the entire body of work to create a new city. This is no doubt due to the rejection of more typical journalistic views from the U.S./Mexico border. In what could be seen as a political stance, Ms. Kon shows us a US Border Control patrol car, covered with plastic in a room with only spackle on the walls. There is no violence being shown in this work, just the physical consequences to two cities that sit on opposite sides of the same river. 

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