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Photo ID

Carnegie Museum stirs up memories for Teenie Harris captioning project.

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Every day, Deborah Starling-Pollard shows slides of Teenie Harris's photographs in local senior citizen centers -- scenes of Pittsburgh's African-American community he shot for The Pittsburgh Courier from the 1920s through the 1960s. She flips through them until someone speaks up -- and at least once or twice during her hour-long visits, someone usually does.

Last week, for example, an image of a woman standing in a beauty salon, arms draped over a chair as she looks off to the side, popped onto the screen while Pollard, community liaison specialist for the Carnegie Museum of Art, scrolled through 120 images at the Lemington Senior Center.

"A man immediately stood up," Starling-Pollard says. "The woman is his sister, Wynona Graves, who owned that salon, which was on Center Avenue in the Hill District in the 1950s. It was called La Salle's, and Wynona ran a beauty school from her shop for many years. He started talking, and I started writing this stuff down."

Starling-Pollard loves it when a photograph sparks a collective memory, so that a buzz spreads through the room, as when she showed the picture of a little girl sitting on a shop's floor amid a mound of comic books: "That was Pat's, a comic book store on the Hill," she says, "where as children they would read all day, even though they couldn't afford to buy any of them. People get excited when they see that because they see themselves in it, even if they don't recognize a single person in the image itself."

Starling-Pollard's slide shows aren't mere trips down memory lane. Her visits to community centers, the Urban League and public libraries are one part of the Carnegie's multifaceted Teenie Harris Archive Project, the museum's attempt to identify its collection of 80,000 negatives the prolific photographer produced of Pittsburgh's African-American community during his career. The museum acquired the negatives from the Harris family in 2001, after the family's lengthy legal battle with a local collector who had purchased rights to the images from Harris. Sadly, Charles "Teenie" Harris died in 2000 before the dispute was resolved.

The project, which will be launched July 5, opens with a showing of 3,500 photographs -- of street scenes, historical events and figures, the arts and political movements -- in the museum's Forum Gallery, just so those whose memories are jarred can help document a part of Pittsburgh's history. The prints will also be on display in binders distributed in public libraries, and online -- 50 new images a month will be added to the museum's Web site through the run of this first six-month phase of the archive project. In addition, Starling-Pollard and oral historians will continue to present slides of Harris' work in community centers.

"As an historical asset, the archive is large, it's intact, and its completeness means we can use it to tell many rich stories," says project curator Louise Lippincott, who has been researching the archive since she first heard of it in 1997. Since the museum acquired the negatives, Lippincott has worked with local historians, and even Harris himself, to piece together the information within the images and organize it in a database that someday down the road will be made available to the public.

"[The collection] shows an African-American community as it was seen and exposed by someone accepted within it," she says. "He photographed the tenements, the elite and the daily middle class. But he did something else that's really important: Teenie balanced and corrected the tendency of photography to focus on the negative of African-American life. This collection also shows a view you can't get anywhere else. If you think about what there is to be gleaned here, it's really amazing."

Since January, Lippincott has been typing data about the images into a large database, preparing a future online research resource. She gives each photograph a title, such as "Drummer Bob Dews, also known as Father Hunz, playing at the Ritz Club." Eventually, one will be able to search for the Ritz Club and find out who owned it, when it was in existence, and who played there over the years. One will also be able to search for Bob Dews and learn why he was called Father Hunz. And if each negative within the archive is documented as such, Lippincott's database (covering 3,000 images thus far) could eventually serve as one of the largest sources of information about Pittsburgh's African-American history. Lippincott hopes that someday a student will be able to type in a name, access a photograph, and -- here's the part that is paramount to her work -- hear a sound bite from someone who remembers the circumstances of the particular image. The museum has applied for funding that will allow Lippincott to hire a full-time staff to scan in the fragile negatives.

The key is community participation in this first phase of what has already been labor-intensive research, Lippincott says, since the negatives are largely unidentified and undated. They tell stories, but only partial ones: "For example, I can look at a photograph and say it's a basketball player with number 36 on his shirt," Lippincott says. "But someone else will have to say, it's Westinghouse" High School. She can look at a photograph and see that Harris has shot the Black Citizens for Democracy meeting at the Freedom Hour building to oppose George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor and presidential candidate, but she doesn't know if that was the headquarters for the NAACP. She can identify the musical group the Darlings of Rhythm, but she doesn't know where they were playing or where they were from.

She is quick to say that the showing of Harris' photographs isn't an exhibition; rather, it's a research project. The prints themselves which the family lent to the museum for this show -- are small (no larger than 5 inches wide at most) and weathered. Harris originally produced them for the Courier, but not all of them were published. They show the cultural worth of Harris work, rather than its aesthetic value. Likewise the project isn't about photography or even meant to represent all 80,000 negatives, which the museum hopes eventually to scan and print. It's about the living people who are still connected to the era of Pittsburgh Harris documented.

"Teenie would go to the barbershop and hear about things going on," Starling-Pollard says, "like birthday parties, picnics, musical events. And he would just show up, unannounced and uninvited. And people knew that that's what he did. They came to expect it. So now, when I show these slides, it's like they expect to see themselves. It's like they're flipping though an old family album. It's a very giddy experience."

The prints do look like those from an album. There are pictures of children dressed for Easter; a young Sala Udin in what looks to be the 1970s; and an image of a black lifeguard teaching a young white boy how to swim at what is either a South Park or Highland Park swimming pool. The exact location has yet to be determined, though the image clearly represents the integration of certain city swimming pools in 1963, Starling-Pollard says.

The archive project is in its pilot phase, according to Lippincott. If it works, then the museum will continue to seek out the community's help in identifying the subjects of more photographs.

"This is a town that's really, really rooted in the past," Lippincott says. "For example, 'Turn right where the church used to be' -- you hear that all the time. And I don't think people think in terms of the past as much [in other cities] as they do in Pittsburgh. So to ask people to look at these photographs, to jolt their memories -- it's very different than asking people elsewhere to do it. My job is to get it and turn it into words, and put those words on record. Because once they go, we lose it."

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