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Connecting With the Past, Online

As Carnegie Museum of Art puts more images from its Teenie Harris collection online, thousands of people are making connections with yesterday.





Five decades after the Pittsburgh Courier identified him incorrectly in this Teenie Harris photo, Sterling Smith (the 12-year-old Elks baseball player, fourth from the left in the front row) is finally setting the record straight thanks to Carnegie Museum of Art’s efforts to identify and record the history told in Harris’ photographs.

It’s Opening Day, 1952, at Pittsburgh’s Kennard Field, and 12-year-old Sterling Smith, second baseman for the Elks youth baseball team, poses proudly for a group photo with his idols, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Joe Black. But the next day, when the Pittsburgh Courier publishes the shot of the Hill District event, taken by prolific photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris, the unthinkable happens: “They called me Stanley in the photo caption!” says Smith, laughing in mock indignation.

More than 50 years later, Smith has formally set the record straight. His small annotation of local history is among thousands of clues from indi-viduals taking part in identifying the Teenie Harris photo archive at Carnegie Museum of Art. The second edition of Documenting Our Past: The Teenie Harris Archive Project, an exhibition of works from Harris’ 40-year career, will be shown in the museum’s Forum Gallery beginning in early February.

The exhibition will feature a display of more than 200 digital prints, a collection of more than 5,000 digital images that will be continuously updated and viewable on gallery computers, and bound sets of thousands of photocopied images. In addition, images will be available
on the museum’s web site, where they can be viewed by cyber-surfers worldwide, exponentially increasing the chances for an “aha!” moment.

The memories of thousands of Pittsburghers captured in Harris’ images are giving context to the gigantic archive, the largest collection of Pittsburgh images by a single photographer. The communal nature of the identification project is “a chance for the common man to take center stage,” says John Brewer, director of the Trolley Station Oral History Center in Homewood, one of the sites where the public can view images to help identify the people and places captured by Harris decades ago.

Boosting the wealth of personal anecdotes is the digitization of the collection. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the museum has hired a team of archivists and technicians who have scanned and filed an additional 5,000 images, at a rate of 150 a day since the first Harris exhibition in 2003. “We’ve only scratched the surface,” says photo archivist Kerin Shellenbarger. “We’ve catalogued 9,000 images of 80,000.”

The quest to get first-person documentation of photo dates, places, and participants began with, and still includes, personal outreach through talks with local seniors groups and field trips that bring elderly patrons into the museum to view photocopies of the works. But Internet access has quickened and broadened the community connection.

The project team reports that younger people bring their elderly relatives to home computer screens to view the images on the museum website. “We get lots of e-mails that begin, ‘My grandmother says this photo shows someone or something,’” says Shellenbarger. “We’ve gotten thousands of responses.”

Electronic Sleuthing
As the whiz of a digital scanner provides a rhythmic downbeat, Shellenbarger explains
the detective work of documenting photos. “Everything has grains of information,” she says.

Cataloguer Celeta Hickman is entering data for a Harris street scene. The intersection bears a Penn Avenue sign, so she consults a city directory to estimate when a hotel and restaurant shown operated at number 3237. She then notes the exact dimensions and conditions of the negative. “We get responses from some regulars, especially jazz and sports historians,” says Shellenbarger. “And we Google a lot.”

Connecting a name to a face can sometimes take years. Shellenbarger had seen the policeman known as “Big Blue” in dozens of Harris photos, but it wasn’t until this year that her team was able to identify him as Prince Bruce, a longtime patrolman in the Hill District. A 1947 caption from the Courier provided the link.

Within Pittsburgh’s black community, says historian Brewer, the identification process can get “very emotional.” He recalls a woman in tears, crumpling to the floor in front of a Harris photo on display at the Trolley Station. “The photo showed her as a young child, with her mother and sister sitting in a sparse room, starving,” he recalls. “She grew up to become a nuclear physicist in Stockholm.” For African American Pittsburghers scattered by the Depression and the decline of the steel mills, Brewer notes, Harris’ photos provide “a lost connection to family.”

Community connections have been rediscovered, too. Brewer points out that, thanks
to Harris’ photographic documentation, Pittsburghers are reminded that 50 years ago,
the Miller Street Baptist Church was a synagogue serving Jewish residents of the Hill District. Images like this, he says, “allow people to connect to the past.” And now, with the Teenie Harris collection on the Internet, the images are connecting people all over the world.

To view Teenie Harris images, visit or Use the online form on the Carnegie Museum of Art site to submit comments on the photos.

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