One Shot Harris: The Photographs of Charles Teenie

One Shot Harris: The Photographs of Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris, Introduction by Stanley Crouch. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001, $35

Pittsburgh, Pa., has produced an astonishing number of Black music legends – Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Billy Eckstine, Eubie Blake, Earl Hines, and Errol Garner, to name just a few.

Charles “Teenie” Harris photographed them all. He also took snapshots of presidents, prizefighters and professional baseball players.

But Harris, who for 40 years chronicled the African-American neighborhood known as “The Hill,” mostly photographed Pittsburgh’s everyday heroes – its steelworkers, railroad men, mechanics and waitresses.

From the 1930s into the 1970s, Harris, whose other nickname was “One Shot,” created more than 80,000 images of daily life in The Hill.

A recent book, One Shot Harris: The Photographs of Charles “Teenie” Harris, with an introduction by Stanley Crouch, contains 135 of these fascinating pictures. An exhibit of Harris’ work opens at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art in July.

Harris gained the nickname “One Shot” because of his habit of taking only one snapshot at any event. This was simple economics. He was working freelance at the time while other photographers were on newspaper payrolls. One shot was all he could afford to produce.

The Pittsburgh Courier, for decades one of the country’s leading African-American newspapers, hired him as a freelancer in 1931.

Only later did he become its staff photographer. Even then they didn’t pay him much. Why not? a reporter once asked him. “I don’t know,” Harris said. “They were just cheap, I guess.”

Self-taught – he quit school in the eighth grade – Harris captured what Crouch calls “the enormous vitality” of his neighborhood. One Shot Harris is “not nostalgic so much as a documentation of certain kinds of human vitality,” Crouch told a New York City audience last October. It doesn’t “duck the reality” of African-American life in Pittsburgh, but provides an honest and rounded picture.

Rather than the one-dimensional images of Black people that we get from television and movies, most of Harris’ subjects are what The New York Times in a December 2001 article called “hard-working and confident.”

“Showing people in squalor didn’t contribute anything to the community,” a former city editor for the Courier, who was Harris’ boss for 10 years, told the Times. “We showed the productive side of our people.”

In 1986, Harris, who couldn’t read well, signed an agreement with a local photo dealer, giving away almost his entire archive of negatives for a mere $3,000.

Shortly before his death in 1998, Harris hired a lawyer to get his negatives back. The lawyer, who made a deathbed pledge to Harris that she would recover his life’s work, eventually succeeded and the archive was returned to Harris’ family.

His photographs are “the largest documentation of African-American urban life in existence anywhere,” according to Laurence Glasco, a professor of Black history at the University of Pittsburgh. “There’s nothing that approaches it in depth and variety of topics,” Glasco told the Times.

For Harris it was just fun. “Oh, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. All fun,” he told an interviewer.

“He thought of himself as an average guy, but he was more than that,” Harris’ son said in 2001. “He never looked for the limelight. Later in his life, after he saw that people appreciated what he was doing, he knew that what he had done was good.”

– Carolyn Rummel (crummel@pww.org)