PITTSBURGH -- Charles "Teenie" Harris had a photographic mission: going beyond the obvious or sensational to capture the essence of daily African-American life in the 20th century.
For more than 40 years, Harris -- as lead photographer of the influential Pittsburgh Courier -- took almost 80,000 pictures of people including presidents, housewives, sports stars, babies, civil rights leaders and even cross-dressing drag queens.
Now, a new exhibit is showing the depth of Harris' work, an archive showing a major artistic achievement that influenced people nationwide.
"His shots of everyday people are amazing. People seem to kind of jump off the page," said Stanley Nelson, an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and MacArthur genius grant winner who has made a number of acclaimed films on black artists, business people, and workers.
Harris found his mission at the Courier, which was distributed nationwide via a network of Pullman train porters. Via the paper, Harris had opportunities to chronicle daily life and to meet the rich, famous and powerful.
Harris photographed Richard Nixon, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and musical greats such as Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington.
Many people stopped by the Courier offices because of its clout with blacks, said Laurence Glasco, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. Yet Harris neither pandered to nor looked down on celebrities, he added.
"He wouldn't cross a street to shake a celebrity's hand. He was interested in them, but he really saw them as just people. And that really comes out in his photographs," Glasco said.
The partnership with the Courier was a perfect match, since its reporters and editors were also pushing for equal rights. And true to Pittsburgh traditions, Teenie Harris was a hard worker, on call virtually 24 hours a day.
"No matter what time it was, they could call. A lot of times, he didn't sleep," his son said.
Louise Lippincott, the Carnegie Museum of Art Curator, worked closely with Harris in the last years of his life. (Harris died in 1998 at 89.)
"He had a very strong personal desire to complete a positive view of African-Americans and counter the negative stereotypes in the white press. On the other hand, there's nothing sugarcoated," said Lippincott.
Many of the pictures show a successful -- and happy -- black middle class. One young woman is depicted posing on the hood of a 1950s car, with steel mills in the background, while another simply kneels while playing with two small dogs. Before the civil rights movement, there are pictures showing black and white children and adults together.
The exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art includes almost 1000 photos, slide shows and a jazz soundtrack commissioned for the show, which is up until April. It's also set to travel to Chicago, Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta.