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His grandmother nicknamed him “Teenie” when he was a child. As an adult, Pittsburgh Mayor David Lawrence nicknamed him “one shot” because, as a photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, he had a habit of snapping only a single frame of any subject. But for Charles “Teenie” Harris, the mark he made on America was certainly not small nor was it a singular, one-time, episodic success.
For more than 40 years, Charles “Teenie” Harris traveled the alleys, workplaces, nightclubs and ballparks of his native Pittsburgh, Speed Graphic black and white camera in hand, documenting what some call the most extensive portrait of black America. From the 1930s, through World War II, to the Civil Rights movement and his retirement in the mid-1970s, Teenie Harris captured over 100,000 images--surpassing that of any other African-American photographer of his generation--and he helped to shape the way in which the African-American experience is viewed in history.
It is only fitting that the story of this simple but talented man be captured and shared with viewers of Public Broadcasting. “One Shot: The Life and Work of Teenie Harris” is being distributed by American Public Television and will be available to public television stations across the country beginning February 1, 2004. WQED Multimedia Pittsburgh is the presenting station for this Kenneth Love production.
Written, directed and produced by independent filmmaker Kenneth Love who once worked on the National Geographic specials for PBS station WQED tv13 in Pittsburgh, “One Shot” is a one-hour celebration of Harris’ creative accomplishments and a poignant story of the people and circumstances at the core of Harris’ life work as a photographer.
Teenie Harris was little known outside of his native Pittsburgh during most of his lifetime. Recently, he gained national and international recognition as a significant figure in the history of photography. Love said an understanding of his work and the conditions behind it are “vital to our understanding of African-American history and will remain an important record of the state of affairs in the United States during the 20th century for generations to come.”
Harris got his start in photography after he borrowed $350 from his brother so he could open a portrait studio in his native Pittsburgh. It was more than a business to Teenie. He treated all of his customers with respect and with dignity and portrayed them in a caring and sensitive manner. He was noted for photographing celebrities--Lena Horne, Muhammed Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., Satchel Paige--but he was also noted for his stunning and hauntingly beautiful black and white photographs of everyday men and women--cab drivers, waitresses, police officers, musicians, children. He became a key member of his neighborhood--“The Hill,” as it was called in the early 20th century--a melting pot of people from all races and ethnic backgrounds.
Teenie Harris also played baseball briefly for the Crawford Athletic Club in the 1920s, but he is best known for the photographs he shot in later years as a photographer of Negro League baseball.
In 1936, he went to
work for the Pittsburgh Courier, then the most influential black newspaper
in the United States. It was one of the few black-owned
newspapers with a national circulation. The Courier’s mission was
not just to provide coverage of the black community. The paper also crusaded
for improvements in the basic human rights of African-Americans. Teenie
Harris was right in the middle of all of the famous and not-so-famous historic
happenings of the time. He truly loved his native Pittsburgh. As Love notes
in the film, Teenis Harris is quoted as saying “I keep my words short...I
Frank Bolden, a one-time city editor for the Courier, is noted as saying Harris would be assigned to cover a baseball game, but would come back to the office not only with shots of the sports figures, but with pictures of people in the stands or in the clubs after the game. “He always had a news story in that camera.”
Viewers of “One Shot: The Life and Work of Teenie Harris” will find themselves living through history, too, as Harris’ work unfolds and the news and events of 40 years of the 20th century come back to life in the suspended moments in time in his photographs. Viewers will also have the chance to meet Charles “Teenie” Harris, if briefly, because Love was able to find some interviews shot just before Harris’ death in 1998 at the age of 89.
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