Community Curation: The Everlasting Archive of Charles "Teenie" Harris



Charles 'Teenie' Harris (1908-1998) sitting in chair with his son, Charles Harris Jr., c. 1930-1950. Black and white, Agfa Safety Film.

According to those who knew him, the photographer Charles "Teenie" Harris never destroyed a negative. Working from the period just after the Depression through the civil rights movement, Harris amassed nearly 80,000 images.

Harris's body of work is considered one of the most important records of 20th century African American life. But when he died in 1998, there was something seriously missing from his collection. Though his photos of celebrities, politicians, and those published in the local newspaper were clearly labeled, tens of thousands of his images–everyday scenes at birthday parties, little league games, church groups–had no titles, no identifying information, no dates.

Enter Carnegie Museum of Art, which purchased Harris's collection in 2001. Since then, the museum's archivists have scanned and catalogued almost 60,000 photos, releasing many through an online, searchable database. What stands out about the Harris archive is that it keeps changing. Not the images themselves, but the titles. That's because the museum has collaborated with historians, activists, Harris's family members, and–most strikingly–community members from Harris's neighborhood, soliciting any information they can find to help reconstruct the story behind the images. Using digital tools mixed with old-fashioned neighborhood outreach, the museum is updating an historic collection with huge contemporary significance, in the process redefining a cultural institution's relationship to its community.


Take this Harris image (courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art), highlighted in Professor Nicole Fleetwood's forthcoming book, Troubling Vision (University of Chicago Press), which includes a chapter on Harris.

In the book, Fleetwood says the fact that Harris left images like this one unlabeled is part of what distinguishes his work from the canon of documentary photography, lending the archive a particular kind of intimacy, even in its anonymity. At first, Fleetwood says the museum called the above image "Children Showered by Fire Hydrant." Later, they changed the title to "Group of Children Posed under Shower from Fire Hydrant." And then, it became, "Group portrait of children, some in bathing suits, standing on Webster Avenue under spray from fire hose, near Webster Avenue firehouse at Wandless Street, Hill District, August 1947."

The archive is full of wordy titles like this one, Fleetwood says. They can be read like small stories–e.g., "Woman, Holding Cigarette, and Robin Bullard on her lap, Seated behind sheet cake inscribed 'Happy Birthday Peg' in kitchen, for birthday party for Margaret Bullard, 2801 Bedford Ave. June 1963."

The endless labels are ironic, given that Harris himself was known for his concision, even earning the nickname "One Shot," a reference to his habit of getting his one picture, then moving on. There's a far-flung community that's forming around Harris's work that's not moving on. They're connecting his local time and place to a broader world through the Internet, keeping his work relevant through that process. By adding new information, narrative, context, and memory, they're co-creating his archive, even all these years later, as an emerging, evolving collection with no end in sight.