Teenie Harriss at the Carnegie Museum

by - Sunday, January 08, 2012

from www.pinterest.com
 During our trip home, the boy and I took my cousin Natalie to the Carnegie Museum for her birthday. Though I have a super huge place in my heart for their permanent collection (a whole room of Martha Rosler videos? Definite win), the highlight of the trip was their new exhibition about Teenie Harris. Harris worked in Pittsburgh from the 30's into the 70's, primarily documenting the lives of many Black Americans in the city. His photography was primarily published in newspapers in Pittsburgh, and it wasn't seen outside of the city until after his death in the 90's. In short, Teenie Harris is the quintessential Pittsburgh artist, creating work in the city, about the city, for the people in the city. It's the kind of insularity that I love about Pittsburgh, but it is very exciting that this artist will potentially gain more widespread attention after this exhibition.

The Harris Archive show at the Carnegie Museum is not only notable for its subject, but they produced an exhibition that works in a totally unique way. The central room of the exhibition was a long desk with computers, so the visitors could interact with and browse through the images as files on a computer (the way most people are probably most prepared to encounter them). In the same room, the archive is presented as a long timeline, interspersed with captions to some of the images (Harris photographed quite a few big name celebrities) and historical information about Pittsburgh and it's race relations through the period he photographed. This organization allowed for the visitors to connect with the work through whichever personal lens means the most to them (they even had a guestbook that allowed people to name their favorites).

There were two other rooms in the exhibition; in the first, Harris's photographs were projected on 7 screens while music that was particularly composed for the exhibition played (to be honest it reminded me of last year's Warhol screen test exhibition at MoMA, but not in a bad way). The projections were split up by category- fashion, at home, family, etc. In the last room of the exhibition, various historians, art historians, and the like choose a particular photograph that sticks with them most, pairing it with a small text that explains why. 

It's hard to understate how impressed I was with the curation of this exhibition; dealing with the ouvre of  a photographer is ridiculously challenging in comparison to the work of a painter or sculptor simply because they produce at least 100 times more material. Even the most expansive traditional retrospective can only show the very tip of the iceberg of a photographer's work. The true brilliance of the exhibition is that it both offers a much more expansive view of Harris's work (though I imagine this is still only a small sampling) while illustrating the curatorial exercise of editing, and finally allowing their viewers to connect on the same curatorial level; any viewer can come in and catalog their favorites or pull at the threads which matter most to them.

I think this photograph represents one of the most interesting threads of the photographer's work, which documents the  changing race relations in certain Pittsburgh neighborhoods in the 50's and 60's. The beauty of these photographs is that he really is talented aesthetically, but the narratives he unfold reveal his perspective so eloquently and interestingly (as soon as you think you have clearly marked out the narrative, Harris nuances it). This show is worth seeing even if you could care less about art because it is historically important.

It is, hands down, the best exhibition I have seen at the Carnegie Museum ever. Please, if you are in the area at all, you should take an afternoon at try your hand at curation, at editing, at understanding a photographic whole through the selection of moments. It is a story that could only be told in Pittsburgh and it matters to anyone from the area, but it is also so art historically interesting and rigorous. For serious, check out this show!

from fakingthefog.blogspot.com

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