Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story, at the Carnegie Museum of Art, is at once commercial, with Teenie having been a photojournalist for the Pittsburgh Courier and the jazz music playing at the exhibit having been commissioned specifically for the show, and yet completely unmarketable as a photography show as it does not offer much as authentic art object. Harris, Pittsburgh legend, was not known for prints, but rather for the amazingly broad narrative of the Black community of the Hill District in Pittsburgh over more than forty years, from before and through the Civil Rights Era. His collection of images is unparalleled, no other exists on this scale documenting Black American culture with less agenda. The importance therefore is obvious, yet the silver prints that Harris did make are limited and of mediocre quality.
Here then, the Carnegie was posed with a unique position: the need to exhibit this collection and the inability to do so in a normal museum context. There limitations created an opportunity for the museum to produce the revolutionary show that they did. As you enter into the Heinz Galleries, Teenie’s presence is literally overwhelming with him name in block letters spanning the divider in front of you and his photograph represented floor to ceiling on the walls. Walking further into the darkened room, you see seven large wall projection categories that circle through the almost 1,000 images the museum chose for the show out of the nearly 80,000 negatives. Jazz music brings the images to life, further developing the time and place of the projected images.This first room allows the audience to develop their own narratives, to piece together the images into some sort of framework about a time in Pittsburgh they may or may not have known.
In the second gallery space the same 987 images have been digitally printed and catalogued in a timeline from the 1930s to the 1970s on the surrounding walls. Each image was given a call number that could be used through printed catalogues, provided headsets, or the computers placed in the middle of the gallery to find more information. Here the scope of this project is made obvious, and not only is the viewer invited to search for information about specific images but also asked to provide any information they may know about the people and events they see. The third room is where the intense viewing experience fell apart for me. Here the viewer is shown a group of prints made by Harris that have been chosen by a group of educators, artists, and the like, each of whom wrote a piece about why they chose a particular image. In this room, the museum seems to have turned on its head. While the entirety of the exhibit up to this point was wonderfully open and allowed the viewer to shape their own experience, here the museum tells the viewer what to see, what to think, and how to qualify the work. It is stultifying, and I am horrified to imagine what a different experience the show would have been entering from this end.
With the breadth of images, the variety of presentation modes, and the shear amount of information to be discovered, the Teenie Harris retrospective is certainly a show to take your time with. This show is amazing not just for the photographs, but for the experiences that are encouraged. The audience is at once provided a history, allowed to form their own story, and given the opportunity to add to the history that the museum has provided. Also, the show is truly revolutionary as a photography exhibit, and offers an exciting shift for the traditional museum guidelines.
“About the Archive.” Documenting Our Past: The Teenie Harris Archive. Carnegie Museum of Art. <http://www.cmoa.org/teenie/intro.asp>.
“Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story.” Exhibitions. Carnegie Museum of Art. <http://web.cmoa.org/?page_id=327>