Sunday, June 21, 2009

One Shot

Lately I’ve been photographing in Pittsburgh’s Uptown District, an area undergoing significant change with the construction of the new hockey arena. This same area underwent massive redevelopment in the late 1950s when homes and small businesses in the lower Hill District were demolished for the construction of the Civic Arena, now known as Mellon Arena, which is the current home of the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team. Two distinctive silvery shapes, the domed roof of the Mellon Arena and the statue atop the steeple of Saint Benedict the Moor Church, stand out as landmarks where the Uptown District and lower Hill District connect. I’ve long been drawn to the outstretched arms of Saint Benedict the Moor, attracted by the statue’s graceful lines. But it wasn’t until I began photographing him that I researched the surrounding history and learned the significance of the church’s location as the boundary where demolition of the neighborhood was stopped. It had been a rallying point for protestors and across the street on Centre Avenue is Freedom Corner which commemorates this and other local civil rights events.

Charles "Teenie" Harris (1908-1998) spent his lifetime photographing Pittsburgh, particularly the Hill District and Homewood communities. He worked as a staff photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, a nationally distributed African American newspaper, and also owned a studio where he did portraiture and freelance work. Teenie Harris was a storyteller using a Speed Graphic press camera to capture the jazz scene, politics, community and church events, and people living daily life – his work lesser known but equally important to that of Pittsburgh writers August Wilson and John Edgar Wideman. One of the many stories Harris’ photographs tell is of the effect of the 1950s redevelopment.

Teenie Harris earned the nickname “One Shot” from former Mayor David Lawrence, who often requested that Harris cover various events, because he was known for getting the photograph he needed with his first shot. The nickname lives on as the title for his first book of photographs, One Shot Harris, published in 2001 and more recently as "One Shot: Rhapsody in Black and White", a performance combining dance with Harris’ photographs, choreographed by Ronald K. Brown and co-sponsored by the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, the Alcoa Foundation and the Pittsburgh Dance Council.

The Carnegie Museum of Art purchased the entire archive of Harris’ work from the Harris family in 2001. Archivists are working to catalogue more than 80,000 images, and because few of the negatives were labeled or dated, they are seeking help from the community to identify people, places, and dates for the images. An upcoming exhibit, "Documenting Our Past, The Teenie Harris Archive Project, Part Three,” opens July 18th in the Forum Gallery at the Carnegie Museum of Art, and is the latest in a series of exhibits seeking information from the community. A larger retrospective of Harris’ work is planned for 2010.

You can browse a database of images, read more about the Teenie Harris Archive Project, and send information about specific images to the archivists via the Carnegie Museum of Art Website.

Photo Credits:

Saint Benedict the Moor Statue, copyright (c) 2009 by Dory Adams

New Hockey Arena Construction and Saint Benedict the Moor Statue, copyright (c) 2009 by Dory Adams