Teenie Harris had a photography studio where he took portraits of people. Compare several of Teenie Harris’s studio portraits to make observations about how he used props, lighting, and backdrops to pose his sitters.
Define portrait. Ask if students have ever had their portrait taken? (School photographs, for example.) What was that experience like? Did you like the results? Why or why not?
Create a studio in your classroom to experiment with different photographic techniques. Students can be both the photographer and the sitter for a range of photographs.
Set up stations to explore a variety of photography techniques, such as point of view, lighting, composition, subject’s body position/eye contact, etc.
Discuss definitions of these words, as well as their impact on the viewer. Use examples of Teenie Harris and Picturing the City photographs at each station to illustrate these techniques.
Print and share the photographs. What do students notice about their photographs? Were they successful in using the techniques?
What was the experience like to be a photographer? To be the subject of the photograph? Did the artist capture something about your identity?
A photographer’s decisions are never completely unbiased. There are lots of choices to be made such as: What is included? What isn’t?
You could make a comparison to painting. What choices does a painter make? How are these similar? What’s different? Why might some people argue that photography isn’t really art, that it is just capturing “real life?” Ask students to use Teenie Harris and Picturing the City photographs to defend the fact that a photographer makes interpretative decisions about what they’re documenting.
How is a photograph important as a historical document? What are the strengths/weaknesses of using a photograph to make inferences about historical people/places? How do we use photographs in our current lives?
What visual information is factual and what is interpretive? How does it reflect the photographer’s point of view?
Experiment with “viewfinders” to help students understand how the frame of the photograph can influence what is and isn’t seen by the viewer in the final photograph.
What more can we learn from multiple views that we cannot learn from just one?
What is different when certain information is or isn’t included?
If you have access to cameras, allow students to experiment by taking a series of photographs of the same place and/or same person from different perspectives. If you have a limited number of cameras, find ways to break students into groups and use this as an opportunity to practice sharing.
Allow students to explore a selection of Teenie Harris and Picturing the City photographs and identify a few as favorites. Ask them to write about why they find each photograph compelling. They can also jot down any questions they have about the photograph.
Students could respond to specific prompts: What’s appealing? How did the artist draw your attention? What is the impact? How do these discussions help students understand the process of critique and analysis?
This exercise can help students discover how history is written. A good place to start would be to research the history of the Hill District through Teenie Harris’s photographs.
Pick photos from different eras and explore how people, places, and events have changed over time—and why. You can view Harris’s photos by theme or thread to find a sequence of images with similar content that range from the 1930s to the 1970s. How is change evident in the photographs?
You can also research some of the important figures from the civil rights era.
Lead a discussion comparing Teenie Harris and the Picturing the City photographs in terms of race and gender relations.
What do you notice? How have things changed over time?
Research additional legislation since these people, places, and events were photographed (examples such as civil rights, equality, etc.).
Compare everyday experiences to major events. How can both be considered history? How can regular activities be history as much as major events? When does something become history?
Identify both everyday occurrences and major events in your history book. What point of view about history does your textbook take? What else could be included?
Is history happening right now? Five minutes ago? Or is history only in the more distant past?
Find examples of major events represented in Teenie Harris’s work. Research how they were described in their own time. Are they discussed differently now?
Describe contemporary events from your current perspective. You can use Picturing the City photographs or ones the students take of their school neighborhood. What might it look like to someone looking back 50 years from now?
Discuss examples of trustworthy sources for history.
How do people change when they know they are being watched or photographed?
Read about Harris’s connection to the neighborhood and people he photographed.
Category: History and the Everyday
, Defending one’s opinion
, Making inferences
, Observation & interpretation
Many of the photographs in the Teenie Harris exhibition are linked to audio recordings of people who knew Teenie and his work . This project could present new perspectives on history and how individuals and their everyday lives play an important role in understanding and exchanging ideas about history.
Have students find an older family member or person in the community. Ask them to interview that person about a selection of Teenie Harris images from a time when they were alive. Get their opinions and perspective of that time through the photographs. Ideally students should find people to talk to from a range of times (1930–70s) represented in Teenie Harris’s photographs.
Students could photograph the person and plot the new photographs and interviews along a historical timeline.
Make comparisons with Picturing the City photographs. Students can share their perspective on what’s happening today. Ask students to imagine being interviewed in the same way when they are older—what would they want to tell someone about what was happening “in their day”?
Share your findings with the class.
Document and share students’ current insights and opinions about the Picturing the City photographs. These ideas could be recorded using journals, writing prompts, audio recordings, or visual arts projects.
Teenie Harris documented over 40 years of his personal experiences and interactions with others through his photographs. You can make a small-scale version of his body of work and recognize the influence of one person over time. The photographers in Picturing the City documented the changes and people, places, and events around downtown Pittsburgh over three recent years (from 2007–2010).
Discuss what can be concluded from examining many photographs, as opposed to just one or two.
How can we document our own lives, and as artists, make these everyday occurrences interesting? What does it tell us about ourselves, our neighborhoods? The world?
How can studying the past and observing the present help us be more thoughtful about possibilities for the future?
Challenge your students to be observant of the people, places, and events around you for a short period of time (maybe a few days or a week). Different prompts could be used each week to narrow or adjust the focus for your students.
Ask your students to collect things that they find, including pictures, objects, and ideas. Have them make note of new things that they become aware of because of their observations. Ask them to share with others. What do they learn about each other through their collected observations, notes, objects, etc.?
The class could start a blog about these everyday events. As a collection, these reflections and findings become a body of work, like Teenie Harris’s body of work.
Category: History and the Everyday
, Formal elements
, Observation & interpretation
Students can create imaginative and historically based narratives, inspired by Teenie Harris and Picturing the City photographs. A combination of close observation and research on the people, places, events, and time period can produce relevant investigations.
- Select a photograph by Teenie Harris or a Picturing the City artist that interests them.
- Make a list of observations (who, what, where, etc.) and jot down any questions they have about the people, places, or events.
- Do research connected with the people, places, events, and time period.
- Create dialogue between characters and/or imagine a larger storyline beyond the photograph.
- Share how stories reflect both research and imagination.
The follow-up conversation could address questions like: What impact does the photograph have on me? What does it say about its time and the impact on the people who lived during those times?
This works nicely as a follow up to the pre-visit suggestion for locating your school and the museum on a city map.
Revisit this map to locate the Hill District and other places Teenie Harris photographed. Locate places in downtown Pittsburgh found in Picturing the City.
Find or take photographs from your school neighborhood. Use a variety of these photographs to “illustrate” the map.
Discuss what these photographs might tell us about these different neighborhoods. How can we tell some places have changed over time? What are the relationships among neighborhoods visible through these photographs? Why have they changed?
What are students still curious about? Assign research to answer questions about places, events, and changes over time. Discuss how students’ research and discoveries might lead to visions about the future of their locations.
Photographs of people can make us curious about their lives, accomplishments, and experiences. How can we use our observation skills to prompt personally relevant investigations of these photographs? How did the artist capture something important? Just because it is a photograph, does that make it important?
Choose a variety of Teenie Harris and Picturing the City photographs depicting people.
Students should observe them carefully and take note of what more they might like to know about them. Ask them to make a list of questions they would ask the people in the photographs if they could. Such as: What are you doing? Where are you and why did you go there? What did you do next?
Share their questions and reasons with classmates in small groups. Have your students ask each other the same questions about the photographs. What are the responses from classmates about the photographs?
If possible, ask students to research something further about the photographs, such as the people, location, events, or the time period. Can they find answers to any of their questions?
Discuss what happens if you can’t find anything specific about the people, places, or events. What are possible factors for this? How can we use observations to create hypotheses and back them up? How does it prompt us to keep asking questions?
Ask students to bring in a recent photograph of themselves (or use this opportunity to take new photographs during class). Students can ask similar questions of their own photograph or of their classmates’ photographs. Such as: What are you doing? Where are you and why did you go there? What did you do next? They should think about what they would want someone in the future to know about them. How does the composition of their photograph, their pose, or the setting suggest something about their identity?