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 

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