Roland Barthes wrote, “We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds.” If so, perhaps we view photographs in order to knock the knowledge we once had back in. It’s something to consider while viewing Teenie Harris: Elections, a new exhibition of work by the esteemed Pittsburgh native.
Shooting for the Pittsburgh Courier, the legendary African-American newspaper, Harris captured black urban life for 40 years. The Carnegie Museum of Art, which owns the 80,000 photographs comprising Harris’ collection, worked with three guest curators: former KDKA anchor Harold Hayes, Pittsburgh City Councilor Daniel Lavelle and actor and activist Michael Keaton. Together they chose about two dozen of Harris’ most engaging political images.
There’s Harry Truman stumping in the Hill District in the ’40s, elevated above a racially diverse crowd. Other famous figures include Orson Welles, and Hill District civil-rights pioneer Thelma Lovette, radiant at the height of her youth and activism. The exhibition’s centerpiece, however, is a not a famous figure. It depicts a billboard urging, “Vote Republican” as a towheaded girl, in bobby socks and clutching a golliwog, narrowly evades the grasp of dark and monstrous claws. The additional billboard text reads “Make Our Homes and Streets SAFE.” The 1949 photo isn’t just shocking evidence that mainstream political fearmongering has been going on for 70 years. It’s a showcase for Harris’ astounding visual storytelling. The amount of information being conveyed is masterful. There’s the grim ad on the billboard itself, then the charming scene beyond, with fluffy clouds, nice homes and clean streets.
Providing a little history is a flatscreen running a video essay featuring Harris’ nearest and dearest describing his life and work. But I don’t suspect a small iPad bolted to the wall will get much use, and it’s a shame: It houses the Teenie Harris essay series, written for the museum’s blog, and featuring voices from Pittsburgh’s black artist community.
If nothing else, go to admire the art of film photography. The large, gleaming inkjet prints testify to the power of film, displaying depth and dimension that seemingly emanate from the very character of their subjects. There’s no wonder why some artists refuse to abandon the medium. Maybe they’re right. Harris, however incidentally, seemed to prove that everything old will be new again.