Self-portrait of Charles 'Teenie' Harris in Harris Studio, c. 1940 Heinz Family Fund Teenie Harris Archive © 2006 Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

*The world premiere of Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story, the first major retrospective exhibition of his work, was held at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

People will find the exhibit to be a truly wondrous experience. Large-scale, themed photographic projections of nearly 1,000 of Harris’s greatest images are accompanied by a jazz soundtrack which makes for an extra special viewing in the gallery.

The groundbreaking exhibition celebrates the work of the African American artist/photographer, a native of Pittsburgh. A serious photographer from the age of 18, he started his professional career in 1937 when he opened a studio in his hometown and began to take on freelance assignments. In 1941, Charles “Teenie” Harris was appointed staff photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, the nation’s preeminent black newsweekly.

Linda Johnson Rice, Chairwoman of Johnson Publishing Company, national honorary chair of the event, said, “Teenie Harris was a pioneer of photojournalism. He artfully documented some of the most significant moments in recent United States history, while capturing the character and rich culture of African Americans in the 20th century.”

Lena Horne reflected in mirror in dressing room at Stanley Theatre, c. 1944 Heinz Family Fund Teenie Harris Archive © 2006 Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

He caught in his lens the everyday lives of Pittsburgh’s African American community. Harris also documented the many celebrities who visited the city, the civil rights era, and wars during his career that spanned from the 1930’s to the 1970’s. Not only that, Teenie captivated the eyes of the nation because of the substantial national circulation of the Pittsburgh Courier.

However, at the unveiling his family brought to light a personal side of the man who was their father.

“He fought hard to keep his family together.” Teenie’s son, Lionel, said in an exclusive interview.

His father, he said, closed his studio and worked from home because it was less expensive to do it that way. The move gave him not only an opportunity to see his dad at work, but to see some of the people who were his father’s subjects up close and personal at a very young age.

He spoke fondly about seeing the legendary jazz vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, who he was named after, at their house. Then six years old, the sight of Hampton brought out a range of emotions.

“I was scared of him because he had this long trench coat and a wide brim hat. I was just in awe of this man.”

Harris said he heard a lot of stories about Lena Horne, but he never saw her at the house. The acclaimed actress was one of his father’s favorite stars, he remarked.  In fact, when she came to Pittsburgh, he revealed to me that Teenie Harris was the only photographer allowed in her dressing room.

Teenie Harris son Lionel and writer Tene' Croom at Teenie Harris exhibit

Another celebrity his father liked demonstrated his love of dancing. He recalled how his dad talked to him a lot about Bojangles and how every time the popular dancer/actor came to town they would get together.

“Even when he was in his later years, he’d take and flip his leg up and kick up in the air.” Lionel Harris said with a chuckle.

And he added, “That was the charm that he exhibited. It was called the Harris charm.”

Teenie Harris was born in 1908 and died in 1998.

The exhibit will be in Pittsburgh until April 7, 2012, and then travel to Chicago, Atlanta and Birmingham.

 Tene’ Croom is president, of Tene’ Croom Communication (www.tenecroom.com). Contact her at: [email protected].