Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Hollywood’s new wunderkind cinematographer took time out of his schedule filming Arrival and Star Wars to visit and interpret the photography of Pittsburgh’s legendary Charles “Teenie” Harris.
Somewhere around the time that cinematographer Bradford Young became an official cinematic legend for his crisp camera work on several critically acclaimed movies such as Selma, A Most Violent Year, the documentary I Called Him Morgan, and the sci-flick Arrival—which garnered him several Oscar nominations—and as he was answering the call to helm the camera for the upcoming Star Wars Han Solo story, he wandered into Pittsburgh’s historic Hill District in search of light. He had been called to the city by the Carnegie Museum of Art to participate in its Lightime series, where artists explore the function of light and photography in relationship to issues such as environmental sustainability and social justice.
Before this, Young had few connections to Pittsburgh other than studying the work of some of the city’s early experimental filmmakers when he was attending film school at Howard University. At Howard, he had also learned about the work of Charles “Teenie” Harris, the renowned black photographer who shot for the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper, and whose treasure trove of images currently resides at the Carnegie Museum. That Harris connection was pretty much all Young needed to convince him to accept the invitation, and he made Harris’s photos of life in the mid-20th century Hill District the centerpiece of his video installation “REkOGNIZE,” which just opened at the museum on June 16.
In the exhibit, Young juxtaposes Harris’s charcoal-and-smoke photos of Hill District nightlife in its once-famous jazz clubs with brighter images of white families in matrimonial settings, the results of Harris’s side-gig as a wedding photographer. Images of black children lined up in costume at a Halloween party and night shots of shadowy homes sitting out of focus atop hills are spliced against scrambled matrices of computer characters. A melancholy jazz number plays in the background, helmed by pianist Jason Moran, who partnered with Young for the project. The effect is both vibrant and chilling.
“I think [Harris] knew how to bend light and shadow in a way that meant the most for black people, for black bodies, for black space. … I’m trying to crack the code,” Young told Antwaun Sargent, in a story about the exhibit for the museum’s website.
CityLab spoke with Young during a sneak peek of the installation to learn more about how the artist was able to hack into and interpret Harris’s vision of the urban landscape.
When did you first discover Pittsburgh’s historic Hill District?
I discovered it through August Wilson. Also, my father was a developer, so I had been hearing about urban renewal my whole life. When I was growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, he took me to meetings where they talked about making sure that highways didn’t go through black communities in the West End of Louisville, which was the equivalent of the Hill District. That’s where I grew up and my parents grew up. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been really interested in the equivalent of West End Louisville all over the country—whether that’s the Hill District in Pittsburgh, or in Harlem. Throughout the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, they were trying to cut highways through our neighborhoods, and it’s like a continuous narrative I’ve seen everywhere, like the Penguins stadium cutting off the lifeline of the [Hill District] community.
What kind of urban development work did your father do?
When we lived in Louisville he was doing his own work, working with my family and doing political work. Then we moved back to Chicago, and that’s where he started doing banking and development work. He used to run this organization in Inglewood called Neighborhood Housing Services. It was one of the top organizations concerned about revitalization, urban renewal, and home ownership. He was demystifying the whole mortgage process for black folks and fiscal responsibility in the ‘90s, so it’s something that’s been in my consciousness since I was a kid.
How has this informed your current film work?
Well, I grew up in world where I wasn’t used to black people not owning property. Before I left to go to Chicago, everybody in my community [in Louisville] owned their house, and I came from a strong mixed-income community. My next-door neighbor was a dentist and the other guy next to me was unemployed. Whether it was through generational hand-over [or] first-time homebuyers, pretty much everyone around me owned. And that left a lasting impression on me in terms of property ownership and the value of space.
It became unfathomable for me when I visited New York or Chicago to see, number one, that black people didn’t own [property], and number two, they were being redlined and were not able to own—systematically shut out of the conversation. Now I’m obsessed with bearing witness to not only where black people are, but also what have y’all done to us? What have we been forced to accept?
What have you learned about the spatial layout and light landscape of the Hill District?
One of the things that really struck me that I haven’t seen in a lot of places is how black people organize their lives based off topography. I’m a lover of the mountains, I love high altitudes, and here there’s this amazing opportunity to see how black people organize themselves on the side of hills, and the way community and recreational space and even worship space is organized around that. I haven’t seen this anywhere. It’s a unique thing where you have such a hilly, mountainous terrain that leads you into a very industrial world.
The way the community is gridded out, and the way they select the main strip, and how that main strip has all these veins and arteries off into the neighborhood—only the skeletons and the bones of that are left behind, but you can see how it was at one point a very vibrant and alive community, and it was vibrant and alive despite the topographical challenges. In Memphis, you have Beale Street, and it’s flat so you don’t get to see the layers and the complexities of it. Here you get to see the layers because the Hill forces you to look at it that way.
So what does that mean in a film context?
Well, altitude and height always determine how close you get to the [ultraviolet rays]. The higher you go up, the thinner the air and the more crisp it is. It’s obviously not like how it was in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s when there was all this industrial particulate matter in the air, so there’s no longer a thick atmospheric layer. It’s still a valley, and heat sits in here, so you still get a beautiful layer of light. But you can map the layers of change by the lack of industrial particulate, which meant the lack of jobs, which meant the lack of economic stability, which probably meant the compromise of ownership, because houses and some parts of the community fell to the wayside because the strong economic base was no longer there. So you can see that change in atmospheric reality as a mapping of the changing community existence.
Do you think Teenie Harris was going for this in his catalogue of photos of the Hill District?
I would hope so and I think so, and part of what I tried to do with my installation is I tried to decode that by studying the metadata [of Harris’s photos], which is supposed to give you a notion of his contrast ratios: where he put his blacks, where he put his mid-tones, grays, and where he put his highlights. So lighting and atmospheric particulate would determine the density of his highlights—were they sharp, crispy highlights, or were they sort of muddy gray as determined by the particulates and the time of day and the time of year? I know just by the sheer volume of his work, and the technical proficiency and beauty of the work, that he was a light-conscious photographer. If [photographers] don’t love the light in that place, they won’t shoot there. He loved the light.
A recent article in Common Edge talks about how photography kinda ruined cities by dehumanizing them, to focus more on the built environment. But Harris seems to invert that argument by telling the story of the city through its people. Would you say that’s a hallmark of black photography?
Yeah, his photographs map a black vitality and an economic vitality that has always been the notch or the thorn in white supremacists’ notions of who we are, or who they want us to be, and photographers are criminals in that court, because what they do is provide a lens on black life that normalizes us.
If there’s one thing that Teenie Harris’s photographs do, it’s that they provide a layer of normalization. You can look at Black Wall Street and hundreds of examples of where [whites] undermined our spatial reality because they knew if they undermined our spatial reality, then they could totally separate us and compromise our ability to thrive with one another. What Teenie’s photographs do, in the sense of Pittsburgh, is they just really reinforce that we’re human, and we just wanted to congregate, recreate, love, die, as everybody else does.
“REkOGNIZE” is on view at the Carnegie Museum of Art from June 16 to December 31, 2017.