What Do Mid-Century Election Photos Teach Us About Today?

A black photographer in Pittsburgh, Charles “Teenie” Harris captured politics, celebrities, and his community from the 1930s to the late 70s

by Francesca Capossela
Aug 2 2016, 5:25pm

Images courtesy of The Carnegie Museum of Art

80,000 photographs of predominantly black neighborhoods from the 30s until the late 70s represent one of the largest documentations of a minority group in the United States. Charles “Teenie” Harris’ work, which has been celebrated mainly posthumously, chronicles the lives of politicians and celebrities in his hometown of Pittsburgh, where he worked for the Pittsburgh Courier. The Carnegie Museum of Art is now in possession of almost 60,000 photographs and will celebrate Harris in an exhibition running from August 13th to December 5th, Teenie Harris Photographs: Elections. Documenting rallies, political advertisements, public figures, and the protests and tensions surrounding the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Harris’ photographs uniquely capture a historical period, and remain relevant during our current election season.

The exhibition brings together three guest curators, all admirers of Harris’ work, who will share their own analyses of and relationships to this body of work. Harold Hayes, a former KDKA news anchor, says he remembers seeing Harris at work as a teenager, and recalls being in awe of his ability to “take that one shot and, with a flair, pop out that used flashbulb and throw it in his pocket.” This skill earned Harris the nickname “One Shot Harris.”

Actor and activist Michael Keaton, who also grew up in Pittsburgh, expresses his admiration of Harris, saying that the photographer worked uniquely as an insider, documenting his community during an important historical period. The gains of the voting rights act, Keaton explains, “are under threat across the country.” He hopes to reexamine Harris’ work as a lens for the critical issue. R. Daniel Lavelle, a Pittsburgh city councilman, describes Harris’ work as one of the most “detailed and intimate records of the black urban experience known today.”

Together, the three guest curators will explore the variety and the unique perspective behind Harris’ work, seeing the exhibition as a chance to better understand the black community in Pittsburgh during a particular moment, as well as an opportunity to add a new perspective to the upcoming election this fall.

To learn more about the exhibition, click here.


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