Social Studies: Documentary Photography

DeCordova Exhibits
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On View 2006 - 2008

As staff photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the pre-eminent black news weeklies in America, “Teenie” Harris chronicled the African-American community in Pittsburgh for over forty years. His images create a historically and sociologically accurate record of his hometown during a complicated era of desegregation and then re-segregation from 1931 through 1975. DeCordova has 192 Harris photographs in the collection, all gifts of Arlette and Gus Kayafas.

This small selection pays homage to the photographer’s career with the Courier as well as his ability to produce remarkable and provocative compositions. Harris captured the charged political and racial climate of the 1930s and 40s in overt scenes of activism, soldiers, and war bond stands, as well as in moments of leisure: a child at play with a toy tank or a group portrait of deer hunters. Cluttered backdrops of commercial signage and local architecture hold their own against the human subjects in these images. Using a broad lens, Harris was able to weave the people and locations of Pittsburgh into a textured portrait of the American social landscape for the Courier and, now, for historical record.

Complimenting Harris’s images in this exhibition are several works of documentary photography from other artists in DeCordova’s collection. Akin to the tradition of street photography, these images capture people in their environments—be they urban or rural—in informal, raw moments. Larry Fink traveled the country to produce tender and humorous portraits of America from the late-1970s and early 1980s, while Bill Ravanesi’s saturated color images of Holyoke’s Hispanic community highlight a growing immigrant community and diverges from documentary photography’s traditional black and white format. Both photographers gravitate to the lesser known corners of society, as does Marcus Halevi in his portrait of patients at an insane asylum. By documenting often ignored or overlooked communities through simple and everyday moments, these images have the capacity to speak volumes about class, race, and social struggles much in the way that Harris’s archive does.