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Harris' photos finally acquire the color of money

Tuesday, December 18, 2001

We hope that when former Hill District businessman Dennis Morgan paid Charles "Teenie" Harris $3,000 for an estimated 100,000 photos and negatives in 1986, he didn't do cartwheels in front of the impoverished, elderly photographer.

To put the best spin possible on a situation that smelled of banditry and exploitation from the opening move, coming up with a fair market value for four decades of a legendary Pittsburgh Courier photographer's work would've been difficult for any businessman or museum curator -- but $3,000?

At most, that kind of chump change entitled Morgan to a few nicely framed and autographed prints for his living room wall. Even in a universe where morality and business interests rarely intersect, $3,000 barely qualifies as a down payment on an apology for just thinking about offering a man of Teenie's stature so little for a corpus of work that defined Pittsburgh's black community.

If Morgan had tacked on a comma and three more zeroes after his initial offer, at least he'd have been in the right neighborhood. But proving that he had a better eye for business opportunities than how to profit from them seems to have been Morgan's entire modus operandi.

According to a lawsuit brought against Morgan and his partner, Jerome Williams, by the Harris estate, the photographer, who died in 1998 at the age of 89, was entitled to one-third of all profits from sales and exhibition of his work.

Morgan denied that there was any profit-sharing agreement between himself and Teenie Harris when he and the functionally illiterate photographer shook hands over their deal in 1986 -- not even lottery tickets.

In other words, it was a typical Faustian deal in which Teenie Harris supposedly cut his family out of the equation and "willingly" bequeathed the heart and soul of his work to a salesman with questionable marketing skills and a business plan consisting primarily of hustling prints on street corners.

Fourteen years ago, before I'd ever heard of Teenie Harris, I came across prints of his work at a sidewalk kiosk manned by African immigrants outside the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Who knows how many thousands of his photos were sold on corners around the world and on the Internet?

Last year, a federal jury recognized the difference between a legitimate business deal and a shady enterprise straight out of an August Wilson play and awarded Harris' estate $4.3 million and control over all of the photographer's negatives and prints in Morgan's possession.

With $137 in the bank, Morgan wasn't in a position to refuse the Harris family's offer that he immediately hand over Teenie's negatives in exchange for being able to walk away from a multimillion dollar verdict he and Williams would be paying in installments for the rest of eternity.

Fortunately, this tale doesn't end with the Harris family wandering the wilderness in search of a suitable home for their late patriarch's photographic legacy. In a deal announced last week, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the region's dominant cultural institution, purchased the photos from the family for an undisclosed sum with a grant from the Heinz Family Fund.

"I can't put a monetary value on it," said Louise Lippincott, curator of fine arts at the Carnegie Museum, "but it's going to cost us millions to take care of [the photos]."

Between cataloguing 80,000 images, developing an archival storage system that protects the negatives, prints and the enormous cost of digitizing them, Lippincott doesn't foresee a Teenie Harris exhibit being mounted at the Carnegie for a few years.

"We're raising money to do the work," Lippincott said. "We're already talking to funders and looking to partnerships with other foundations. We have a huge responsibility to the community to make [these photos] accessible."

Too bad Teenie Harris died before he ever heard those words. Three years after his death, Teenie Harris' family can rest assured that their interests, along with the public's, will be honored by the Carnegie Museum.

"No one's getting rich off of this deal," Lippincott said with a laugh. "We've been talking to the family since before Teenie died. [The Carnegie] is famous for not making any money. We're just excited to have these photos."

In the end, this is exactly what Teenie Harris would've wanted, too.

Tony Norman's e-mail address is: tnorman@post-gazette.com.

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