Then and Now | Art Reviews + Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Arts » Art Reviews + Features

Then and Now

Teenie Harris' seldom-seen portraits of mid-century Pittsburgh cross-dressers are paired with shots by contemporary photographers.

by

comment
"Portrait of male dancer in exotic feathered costume, in reclining pose against curtain, in Harris Studio, c. 1940-1945," by Teenie Harris.
  • "Portrait of male dancer in exotic feathered costume, in reclining pose against curtain, in Harris Studio, c. 1940-1945," by Teenie Harris.

Remember that Charles "Teenie" Harris took a lot of pictures: During his 39-year career, Harris shot more than 80,000 images, mostly for the Pittsburgh Courier. As a photojournalist, Harris didn't make his subjects pose; he followed people around and showed up at newsworthy locations. Harris had a knack for being at the right place at the right time; his nickname was "One Shot," because he had a rare gift for capturing the right moment in a single frame.

Harris is beloved by historians because along with his celebrated photos of athletes and musicians, he chronicled ordinary, working-class African-American life. But over the course of 80,000 exposures, Harris captured more than Hill District merchants and families; he also raised his camera to the counterculture, including a diverse array of drag queens.

Then and Now is a startling exhibit, for many good reasons: First, it's hosted by SPACE, a Downtown gallery that has a long history of heady multimedia projects, some of which only a doctoral student could love. Then and Now is gutsy and gritty; Harris' pictures of party-goers and cross-dressers unveil a throbbing nightlife scene -- in Pittsburgh, from the 1940s through 1960. Men dress in evening gowns and lipstick; they gather in locker rooms and half-heartedly cover their naked crotches. The portraits of dancers and costumed guests are full of smiles and laughter (and what appears to be drunken abandon).

The "Then" part of Then and Now is light-years from contemporaneous Levittown suburbia, or even the inner-city TV life of The Honeymooners. Curator Deryck Tines hand-picked the portraits from the Carnegie Museum's extensive Teenie Harris archive, and he's outdone himself. Tines offers no exhibition statement, no curatorial rambling: The 42 portraits, tastefully arranged in a single, unbroken line, speak for themselves.

The "Now" section takes a full 15 photographers to respond to Harris' call. Our public world is more diverse now, and so are our artists. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staffer Annie O'Neill's untitled quartet documents drag shows, both on- and backstage. Portraits by Renee Rosensteel show tough-looking, tattooed women and a lesbian wedding (movingly titled "The Best Day"). (Rosensteel is married to CP arts editor Bill O'Driscoll.) CP staff photographer Heather Mull offers us the single "Fae 2008," a portrait of a laughing man (or is it a man?) with tufts of facial hair and clothing your grandmother might call "colorful." Sarah Higgins, in a more abstract turn, shows a young man in a masquerade mask; the title is simply "Who Was That Masked Man?"

Yet it's difficult to find pictures as daring as Harris', if only because drag queens in the Eisenhower era were as unspeakable in polite society as, say, a Boy Scout troop of she-male adolescents would be today. And mere cross-dressing these days can seem a little familiar. (You want to do something outrageous? Try preserving your marriage status in California.) The prison tattoos and muscular women are impressive and all, but nothing you wouldn't see in a feisty issue of Rolling Stone.

So a favorite "Now" series is Vanessa German's. German is a local Renaissance woman -- poet, stage actress, visual artist, etc. -- and her photographs are pleasantly understated. The eight portraits are all untitled, and each simply shows a different person posing in a different way: Two women playfully flip us off, and so does an effeminate man with a mustache. A handsome, muscular man leans shirtless against a brick wall, looking tired and preoccupied. Most striking of all, an African-American woman wears a slick white blazer, a white shirt, a striped white-and-gray tie and spectacles. Her coiled dreadlocks are short and well-groomed. She could be anyone -- piano player, business-owner, mother, veteran -- but still, she looks like no one else. Isn't that the diversity we all hope for?

 

Then and Now continues through Dec. 31. SPACE Gallery, 812 Liberty Ave., Downtown. 412-325-7723 or www.spacepittsburgh.org

Add a comment