“Come on downstairs, I wanna show you something.” He escorted me down the wooden stairs into his basement. There before me, running the entire length of the basement were what seemed to be endless Kodak paper boxes, stacked chest high against the stone foundation wall. They were filled to the brim with this man’s life work.
It was 1980. I had been assigned by the New Pittsburgh Courier to photograph Mr. Charles “Teenie” Harris for an article. We didn’t discuss much about the negatives other than Teenie saying they were kept down there. They sat there in those boxes like souls in limbo. Twenty-five years have passed since that encounter.
In December 2005, I began to look at Teenie’s cataloged archive, some 70,000 negatives to date. Although I’ve viewed thousands of images, it’s still less than 10 percent of his work here at Carnegie Museum of Art, where his negatives are being brought back to life with high-tech scanning. His images on the computer screen speak in volumes. He recorded history in a way that will never be duplicated. I have been totally blown away, awed in fact, by the magnitude of Teenie’s legacy. Each photograph has either spoken to me or transported me to another place.
From a photographer’s standpoint, his job was no easy task. He did not have the luxury of a motorized film advancer, which today enables the photographer to shoot approximately seven frames per second, or the convenience of a battery-operated flash unit with a recycling time of less than a second. With each shot, Teenie had the arduous task of disconnecting a very hot flash bulb, about the size of a walnut, discarding it, adding another, and advancing his film. Imagine this action repeated more than 80,000 times.
During the process of selecting images for this exhibition, I came across photographs of four of my own family members. There were images of my mother and younger brother after he won the Pittsburgh Courier baby contest in 1969, my grandmother at one of her women’s groups’ social events during the 70s, and a very touching photo from the mid-1940s of my late father, Carl R. Southers. He was just 10 years old at the time, among a group of children admiring a model airplane. I’m sure we’ve all heard stories about yesteryear from our grandparents or other relatives. If you’ve ever wondered how things actually looked in the past, Teenie’s treasure trove of images provides some answers.
What an amazing journey these negatives, these treasures of Black culture have made. From a cellar in the Point Breeze section of Pittsburgh, to being re-exposed by photographer Dennis Morgan, to finally finding a home here at Carnegie Museum of Art, where they can be archived and displayed for future generations to marvel at, to enjoy, and to be touched by and moved by, as I have been.
—Mark Clayton Southers