The above photograph by Charles “Teenie” Harris was one of the many from his extensive collection that distinguished scholar Deborah Willis discussed at the Atlanta University Center Robert Woodruff library on January 31. The Carnegie Museum of Art houses the Harris archive and can be accessed on-line. If you’re not in the Atlanta area and won’t be able to experience the exhibit at the Woodruff library, then I highly recommend searching the on-line archive as another way to engage Harris’s work. Doing so is well worth your time.
One of the things that I like about Harris’s work is that it recognizes broadly articulated expressions of beauty in black life and culture. In the photograph above, Harris focuses on the waitress, who is certainly a beautiful woman, in a clean, crisp uniform–but a uniform nonetheless, taking time out from her work to smile for the camera. Harris’s choice of subject is interesting given the elegantly dressed woman in the background who is privileged enough to at least not be working in that moment and dressed so as to be camera ready; she even seems to admire the waitress.
The photograph of the waitress at the Crawford Grill reminds me of the photographs of my family that I enjoyed as a child. At the time, I didn’t understand that I was looking at working class people whose lives the larger culture discounted and thought devoid of beauty. I didn’t know then that their working class experiences were supposed to place them outside the frame of even my interest. I remember admiring the beauty and elegance of the sitters and wishing that I could possess such charm. The Harris photograph makes the issue of class a more overt concern than the way I understood it at the time and challenges the broader view that beauty can only be an elite affair.