You never know exactly when eternity is looking in on you through the pupil of a camera lens. Or what part of it is, for that matter.
If the waitress on the lunch shift at the Crawford Grill in Pittsburgh could have somehow known, 60 years later, that not only scholars and artists but thousands of people in dance audiences would be scrutinizing the photograph Charles "Teenie" Harris took of her at work—would she have kept that same bemused (and ever-so-slightly exasperated) expression on her face?
I like to think so. A waitress suffers many an unorthodox request in her line of work without a break in stride; since people bring everything else with them into a restaurant, a small percentage of them involve a camera. Go ahead, take your shot and my time both, she could be thinking: That jerk in the corner deserves to wait a little longer for his burger and fries.
Her image is included in the touring exhibition Rhapsody in Black and White, at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies through April 9. It also appeared in choreographer Ronald K. Brown's evening-length work One-Shot, which his dance company, Evidence, performed in Page Auditorium Friday night.
If you look close enough, the waitress' picture and the others in both exhibitions convey a lot about mid-century Pittsburgh and the African-American community that worked and lived—and celebrated, worshipped, protested and created—there at the time.
The photos also say a lot about the man taking the picture: the justifiably celebrated news, fashion and portrait photographer whose massive body of work, some 80,000 images, is now housed at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
W.E.B. DuBois once wrote that all art is propaganda, notes curator Deborah Willis in her essay accompanying the photography exhibit, as she asserts that Harris "used the photographic image to promote positive aspects of the black race." And only the first glance at a number of pictures here is enough to validate the quote from freelance photographer Greg Lanier that Willis includes in her text: "There's a reason that he had all the access that he did. People trusted him, and they knew they would be portrayed in a good light and not exploited."
A man takes his ease, leaning back with a satisfied smile and a cigarette in one hand in a barber's chair at the Crystal Billiard Parlor. In another shot, an unidentified elderly woman simply beams with love and pride, seated in an upholstered chair, surrounded by kin or loved ones. In a third, a young man in his 30s, part of a group at a bar, looks at the photographer with what appears to be a combination of confidence, accomplishment and gratitude. In all of these and more it's quite clear, as Willis notes, that Harris portrayed his subjects at various social gatherings "as a participant, not an observer." Clearly, he was a cultural insider, shooting from the inside out.
And yet, on second glance, his work is not as uncritical as the words above might suggest. For if Harris documents the fine clothing and ease of racketeer—and philanthropist—Gus Greenlee and his entourage, his camera also captures the planks of the boardwalk street and the clapboard building behind them. In another, Mary Louise Harris models a tweed suit and polka dot blouse in a glamour photograph; her alligator-skin pumps contrast with a grimy oil spill on the sidewalk just behind her left foot.
Two children smile in their Sunday best, clutching Easter baskets still wrapped in cellophane, standing on a city sidewalk that is cracked and stained. A chipped staircase leading to a weedy, vacant lot stands adjacent to the assembled men and women of the Rodman Street Baptist Church—while a fiercely grinning kid at the right stands with his suit hanging completely off one shoulder, his nose wrinkled at the man who takes his picture.
The tragedy implicit in three matched coffins, stopped on the way to the hearses in front of West's Funeral Home, is unconsciously framed by the business immediately next door: Lew's Loan Office, whose storefront banners boast of watches for $8 and suits for $12, above the sign "We take pawn."
In the backstage photos of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Lena Horne we also see the metal pipes, painted-over electrical junction boxes and nicked wooden mirror frames that attest to the work—and decidedly unglamorous tech—it took to make them look good on stage.
Let's be clear: These are not imperfections in otherwise pristine photography. To the contrary: They provide the essential frame for Harris' work. They indicate the degree to which the beauty and the confidence he documented constituted a triumph over the inner city's ever-present realities. It's clear these subjects haven't effortlessly achieved their greatness in some sterile Shangri-La. They have forged, cleaned and perfected it, with some doing, out of a gritty and resistant urban landscape.
The name of Ron K. Brown's dance should ring a bell with local dance-goers. One-Shot: First Glance, which the American Dance Festival presented here in July 2006, wasn't actually the world premiere it was touted as at the time; in view of the finished product, the 2006 work was a brief peek at the work's first few minutes—minus the all-important context of Harris' projected photographs.
But if the grit of Harris' photos give his work authenticity, that's also the quality that is probably the most missing in Brown's choreography. Throughout One-Shot, Brown and his dancers seem preoccupied with lifting the people of Harris' community back into memory, literally at times. With bare hands and sinews of shoulders, they pull up from the ground, and lift down from above, some ineffable quality of the depicted people that they then clasp to their chests.
It's a moving, effective gesture. It also occurs far too often in Brown's choreography to maintain its initial impact.
The sumptuous beauty of Keon Thoulouis' sinuous first solo—and a number of other moments in One-Shot—convey the triumphs of Harris' subjects, while the intense close-ups of his photographs get at the fragility of the documents. Jazzy tributes spice up the early- to mid-work passages.
But a sameness descends upon the later sequences in the work. When photo designer Clifton Taylor clips the heads from too many of Harris' pictures—while leaving out the world those heads existed in—a lot of important information goes with them.
When One-Shot focuses too much on faces, it leaves too many of the rich photographic stories Harris was famous for telling either unarticulated or off-stage entirely, in a tribute that is sumptuous but ultimately still a little empty.
E-mail Byron Woods at email@example.com.
Web Editor's note: Charles "Teenie" Harris' archive of nearly 80,000 photographic negatives is currently being cataloged and scanned through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and may be searched on the Carnegie Museum of Art's Web site at www.cmoa.org/teenie/info.asp.