Riding in the Family Car with Teenie Harris
In the 20th century the motor car embodied the American dream. Car ownership was the material reward for hard work and accomplishment, and a symbol of personal freedom—the ability to go wherever one wished, whenever. In segregated African American communities, such as Pittsburgh’s Hill District and Homewood where Teenie Harris worked and lived, car ownership was complicated by limited access to loans and insurance, and even more highly valued as a result.
Teenie Harris loved cars. Before becoming a professional photographer, he listed himself as a “chauffeur” in the Pittsburgh telephone directory. When he opened his photography studio in the Hill District in the 1930s, he proudly photographed the shop window and his luxurious Cadillac parked in front. When he joined the staff of the Pittsburgh Courier in 1941, after several years of freelancing, his cars took him all over the city, the trunk full of newsworthy prints and negatives. Harris’s children remember hours of car washing and waxing, and driving with their father to jobs along routes that evaded all traffic lights and stop signs. Harris’s love of cars is visible in many of his photographs, especially the “car portraits” lit and posed as carefully as any studio glamour shot. Cars also star in Harris’s 16mm home movies.
Carnegie Museum of Art is grateful to Kenneth Hawthorne for serving as guest curator of the exhibition Teenie Harris Photographs: Cars. Mr. Hawthorne knew the photographer and his cars well, as Teenie was a regular customer at Hawthorne’s Esso, a service station on Wylie Avenue in the Hill District owned by Kenneth’s father. It’s also where Mr. Hawthorne began his career as a mechanic before going on to study business administration at the University of Pittsburgh—a career path that eventually led to his appointment as vice president of Gulf Oil in 1977. His recollections of Pittsburgh during this time period have helped frame Teenie’s photographs in a larger social and cultural context.
Image credit (top): Charles “Teenie” Harris, Two women and man standing around baby girl seated on hood of Chrysler, on Centre Avenue with YMCA in background, Hill District, ca. 1951. Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family.
The exhibition Teenie Harris Photographs: Cars, currently on view in the museum’s Lobby Gallery, runs from April 30, 2015 to January 18, 2016.