My dad was a photographer.
He started taking pictures before he was drafted into the Army during World War II.
When he came out, he continued taking pictures for our family and for the Atlanta Daily World. He took pictures of my mom, before they were married, for his college yearbook, The Maroon Tiger (Morehouse). He took pictures for the ADW of the first eight Black policemen hired by the Atlanta Police Department in 1948.
If he liked the color of what I was wearing to school, he’d stop everything and stand me in front of the fireplace in the living room and take my picture. Though he’s been dead for 21 years, I still miss our annual family photo in front of the church on Easter Sunday for which he used a timer on his camera to put himself in the picture, too.
So this is why I have a very special feeling for the “Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story” exhibit that recently opened at the Atlanta University Center Woodruff Library, sponsored by PNC bank. For more than 40 years, Charles “Teenie” Harris (1908-1998) took more than 80,000 photographs of African-American life in Pittsburgh, mostly for the Pittsburgh Courier, a nationally-circulated Black newspaper, much like the ADW.
The Woodruff Library has 80 images on display that express the “truthfulness and beauty” of the Pittsburgh community, said Loretta Parham, CEO and director of the library at the opening.
The exhibit runs through May 24 and is free and open to the public during library operating hours.
“You can feel the love he has for the community, and you love him,” said Karen Jefferson, project manager for the library.
Karen’s right. The black and white images are brilliant and familiar, even though I’ve never been to Pittsburgh, nor met any of the subjects. Harris, like my dad, captured the ordinary and the exciting episodes of life in the community.
Archibald Hill, vice president, market manager and community development for PNC, agreed with the resonance of the photographs. He said he and his father were both students at Morehouse College and the exhibit truly captures the familiar life of the Black community.
A special guest at the opening was Deborah Willis, chair and professor of photography and imaging at New York University and a leading historian of African-American photography. Atlanta art historian Amalia Amaki introduced Willis by saying “she drops books the way rabbits drop babies.” She added that they are not just books but “treasures, journeys and new opportunities to learn.”
Willis said she met Teenie Harris in 1981 while she was still a student. She said Teenie’s work captured the breadth and depth of African-American life from the 1930s to 1970s.
“I love Teenie Harris,” she said. “He gave me a new way of looking at Black life through the lens of a Black photographer.”
Another special treat at the opening of the exhibit was the presence of Teenie Harris’ daughter, Cheryl Harris, and Harris’ grandson, Taun Henderson, also a photographer. “It’s a humbling experience to see my grandfather’s work,” Henderson said. “Growing up, I didn’t realize how powerful this man was.”
Henderson now lives and works as a wedding photographer in Atlanta. He said he was happy to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps. “If you find something you love, you’ll never have to work another day in your life.”
Teenie’s collection of photographs was acquired by the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh in 2001. Through the support of PNC, the exhibit has been presented in several cities throughout the country and the date here in Atlanta is the first in the South. As a media sponsor for the exhibit, ADW is hosting a photography forum on March 28 at the library to feature the work of several local photographers. Stay tuned for more details. You may even get a chance to take some of their work home. So, thanks, Teenie. Thanks Woodruff Library. Thanks PNC. And thanks, Dad.
M. Alexis Scott is publisher of the Atlanta Daily World