Charles “Teenie”Harris (born 1908) was a quiet, unassuming man who taught himself how to shoot a camera and decided to open a photography store in Pittsburgh, PA. In his consistent and methodical way, he became the virtual historian of black culture in the city, photographing virtually every major event that took place. In some ways, he was responsible for highlighting the full scope of many individual’s lives, as he covered weddings, births, funerals, sporting events, celebrity sightings, to name a few. He was the featured photographer at the Pittsburgh Courier, the national newspaper that highlighted the culture and prominence of black Americans at the time. His photojournalism brought light to African American culture on an international scale and put the city of Pittsburgh on the map. By showcasing individuals in all walks of life, Teenie documented all the various different ways there was to live, fight, and die as a black American. In a time when America was hell-bent on covert and overt racism, with subtle erasure in the media except for struggle, Teenie revealed that “black” life was simply life after all. Life was beautifully normal. It had its triumphant highs as well as its frustrating lows. But it was life plain and simple.
No Matter What, Keep Going! What makes Teenie really remarkable is his sheer consistency and drive. From the 1930s until his retirement in 1975, he shot over 80,000 pictures which serve as a visual history of Pittsburgh and the life and times of its black inhabitants. Perhaps he’s not the most “artistic” photographer in the game or the most vocally crafty with his imagery. You may find photos that are out of focus or just static. However, the fact that he simply documented individuals in their daily life, and was continually present within his craft, made him a local celebrity in his own right. In typical Pittsburgh fashion, he also collected many nicknames in relation to his profession, such as “Mr. Camera Man, which came from it constantly being in his hands. “One Shot,” as he typically took candid photos of his subjects in one take, as he usually refused to shoot the same subject in multiple poses. However, “Teenie” was ultimately the name that stuck, due to his small frame and stature. He’s absolutely an inspiration to keep going! Don’t let anything stop you, keep walking that path of purpose.
Stay humble. A humble gentleman, Teenie never accepted his rise to fame. However, he was a local icon and became larger than life. Local models clamored to shoot with him, and children ran up and down the block yelling at him to take their picture in hopes of being in the newspaper one day. Even though Pittsburgh was (and still is) notoriously racist and uninterested in black culture, his images lifted and preserved culture in so many aspects. It’s a quiet secret that Pittsburgh was a happening spot back in the day, with many successful black businesses thriving and countless black legends coming to town to entertain. But Teenie’s persona is very reflective of the culture that makes Pittsburgh great. He still stayed true and blue-collar to himself and everyone around him. He was even more lauded and respected for being such a normal guy.
Your greatest inspiration is right outside your front door. Teenie became a local icon by taking photos of everyone around him. It’s crucial to remember that we don’t have to travel much further than our front door to get to where the “action is.” Sometimes we may feel that we have to leave our environments and thrive in a brand new scene. However, that may not be the case at all. We would be amiss to take our own neighborhoods for granted. Perhaps we should do all we can to magnify the place we are. The community we live in is constantly moving and thriving all around us and its history deserves its own merit, because times are always changing, and moments are meant to be remembered. Our neighbors are an integral piece of culture and major and minor ways. As comedian Paul Mooney would fondly say ‘”I’m not Hollywood, I’m Neighborhood.” Even though Pittsburgh is not as large as New York City or LA, the many achievements that have expounded from it are pretty expansive and notable on its own merit.
Don’t get me wrong though. Sometimes structural problems exist around you that are beyond your scope and you MUST venture out of your comfort zone to grow. It’s pretty sad to note that the old stomping grounds of Teenie Harris, the Hill District, are hollow and gutted as the aura of systemic racism is just as severe as ever, mounted with the finality of gentrification. It’s amazing that at one time, his studio was located on Center Ave, in the heart of a neighborhood that was once nicknamed “Little Harlem,” due to the successful economic growth that black citizens had there. However, it is a shadow of its former self. In fact, the racial disparity in Pittsburgh is so bad, that a report was done on the city and concluded that black people could literally live anywhere else and thrive. So if you happen to be in a city that gives you no love, remember that your roots are still inside you anyway, no matter where you decide to roam on this Earth.
Protect your work. In 1986, Teenie Harris unknowingly licensed his entire collection for just $3000 to a local businessman, due to the fact that he was illiterate and did not know what he was signing. In 1998, he sued for unpaid royalties and requested that his work be returned to him. Sadly though, he passed away before he won the case. It’s devastating that he left this earth without his ultimate treasure, his life’s work, returned to him. However, after his death, he ultimately won the case, and his work is archived and displayed at Carnegie Museum. Keep your work close to you and don’t forget the worth it warrants to you. If you enter into any collaborative agreement with someone, make sure you know what you are signing, without a shadow of a doubt.
Teenie was not only a prominent photographer but a powerful man who became the quintessential visual historian of black history in Pittsburgh. He teaches that you don’t have to go too far to be great, and lifting up others in their own lives is truly its own reward. Check out more of his work here!