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Pa. exhibit showcases legendary black photographer
“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.
“You can look at them and say, `These are real people; they happen to be very poor.’ They’re more than those clothes they’re wearing. They were first and foremost a person.”
One picture shows a little girl with a big smile sitting on the floor of a newsstand, reading a comic book with a small dog on her lap.
A key piece of history that Harris and the Courier covered heavily was African-Americans who served in World War II and returned home demanding that they be accorded rights equal to white soldiers, sailors, and airmen.
“The drive for civil rights really began in World War II,” Lippincott said, far earlier than many imagine.
Yet the photographs are more than just a rich trove of mid-century American history. They emerge as art because Harris became a master of composition and for decades took each picture with a large-format camera that had to be hand-loaded with a single piece of film for each shot.
“I remember being just shocked and amazed at what an incredible photographer he was. He just had this incredible eye,” said Nelson, who noted that Harris earned the nickname “One Shot” for his ability to deliver an assignment with one photograph.
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. And even before the civil rights movement, there are many pictures showing black and white children and adults together.
Glasco notes that even some controversial pictures seem to defy current expectations of what the past was like. In one, a man in a car has a cross-dressing male companion on each side.
“They’re happy, they’re proud, they’re smiling. It’s a joyful thing,” Glasco said of the men openly dressing as women. At an annual parade in Pittsburgh’s Hill district, one car was often filled with cross-dressers who waved at crowds, he added.
Glasco once saw a Harris picture of cross-dressers next to contemporary pictures with the same subject, and was struck by the anger and hostility of the people in the new pictures, and the openness of the people in the older ones.
The exhibit at the museum includes almost 1000 photographs, slide shows, and a jazz soundtrack commissioned especially for the show, which is up until next April. It’s also scheduled to travel to Chicago, Birmingham, Alabama, and Atlanta in the future.
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