Black artists who defied stereotypes
Exhibits chronicle photographer Charles 'Teenie' Harris and artist Romare Bearden.
PITTSBURGH — African-American photographer Charles "Teenie" Harris aimed his camera at everyone from world-renowned jazz musicians to hard-hat wearing laborers. Visual artist Romare Bearden depicted similar subjects in his collages, paintings, and prints.
Both focused on conveying stereotype-defying images of black communities as creative, productive places - and by doing so, each made invaluable chronicles of the 20th-century black experience. Each is being posthumously celebrated through major museum projects that offer in-depth views of their work.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington recently opened "The Art of Romare Bearden," the biggest retrospective to date of his colorful, elegant, and often musically influenced pieces. The Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh is undertaking a monumental endeavor in its attempt to catalog thousands of Harris images by 2007. With "Documenting Our Past: The Teenie Harris Archive Project," the museum hopes to identify the subjects of 3,600 prints and catalog 55,000 of the more than 80,000 negatives Harris made during his 44-year career as a studio photographer and journalist for the Pittsburgh Courier, once the nation's largest black newspaper.
The Carnegie has hung 300 prints and filled binders with photocopies of all 3,600, many never before seen, and, because Harris was functionally illiterate, rarely documented. The copies can be perused at the museum, at several libraries, or online. (100 images per month will be added to the archive site.) Viewers are invited to record any relevant memories on paper, via e-mail, or with an oral historian.
Harris, who lived in Pittsburgh, and Bearden, of Harlem, shared much in common. Both contributed to black newspapers: One published photos, and the other drew political cartoons. Both depicted images of Pittsburgh, where Bearden lived for a while, and their careers blossomed during a rich period known as the Harlem Renaissance, when that black community and others, including Pittsburgh's Hill District, experienced the growth of an erudite middle class. The Hill, once known as "the crossroads of the world," incubated many jazz talents, including Billy Eckstine, Billy Strayhorn, Lena Horne, and George Benson. Harris and Bearden were both captivated by jazz.
In fact, jazz and blues were among Bearden's main inspirations. Many of his works are named for songs, and he created album covers for Wynton Marsalis, Charlie Parker, and Donald Byrd. The Byrd piece is called "Thank You ... for F.U.M.L. (Funking Up My Life)."
The Bearden retrospective, the museum's first major survey of a black artist's work, is the centerpiece of a citywide tribute to black culture called "Blues & Dreams: Celebrating the African-American Experience in Washington, D.C." But the exhibit's timing has nothing to do with political correctness, according to Wynton's brother Branford, who attended a recent preview. "It's beyond that," he says. "He's not a great African-American painter, he's a great ... painter." Branford, who recorded an album to complement the show, credits Bearden for awakening his interest in visual art.
The retrospective displays about 130 of Bearden's 2,000 known works, including collages that incorporate paper, fabric, foil, ink, paint, and other materials. One of them, "Pittsburgh Memories 1984," depicts smokestacks, a lunchbox-carrying worker, faces peering out of apartment block windows, a gramophone, and his most common element: trains. Another piece, "The Piano Lesson," was the inspiration for Pittsburgh native August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
Harris's lens froze his subjects in moments of worship, work, study, play, protest, celebration, or simply being. Dubbed "One Shot" by Pittsburgh Mayor David L. Lawrence, Harris captured his images in a single frame because the Courier wouldn't supply him much film.
Only his published photos contained captions, but some subjects are easily recognized. They include Martin Luther King, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay), Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong - almost every black celebrity who came through Pittsburgh - and many white ones, such as presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. Teenie's 4 x 5-format camera also chronicled civil-rights protests, ghettos, and then-controversial biracial couples.
"They are incredibly powerful images of a way of life," says curator Louise Lippincott.
Viewing the prints makes one want to know more. For instance, the actors costumed in Victorian garb - what play were they performing? Those clean-cut teens sitting around a record player - what were they spinning?
These are questions Harris left unanswered. But hundreds of riddles have already been solved through the archive project. The white child getting a swim lesson from a black lifeguard in a newly integrated pool happens to be a museum security guard. The photo of a dashiki-wearing young man turned out to be Pittsburgh City Councilman Sala Udin. Though he had no idea Harris had snapped the shot, Udin says, "Whenever there was a gathering of more than three people, you expected to see Teenie there."
University of Pittsburgh history professor Larry Glasco says the archive is the largest collection of photos from any black community in the world. But it might have disappeared if Harris hadn't sued to regain control of his images from a collector who had talked him into selling management rights. He died after filing the suit, but his heirs won the collection and sold it to the museum, which is working with its sister institution, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and the university's history department.
The mission has a sense of urgency because people who could shed light on Harris's photos are dying. But Lippincott says, "This is what doing history is all about. You capture what you can."
• The Bearden exhibit, on display through Jan. 4, travels to San Francisco, Dallas, New York, and Atlanta. Go to www.nga.gov/exhibitions/beardeninfo.htm. To view some of Harris's images, go to www.cmoa.org/teenie/info.asp