Image identification tools bring the black and white images of Charles "Teenie" Harris to life

Carnegie Mellon University, in collaboration with Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry (STUDIO) and the Carnegie Museum of Art, has received the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant to identify, annotate, and organize the impressive collection of more than 80,000 photos taken by photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris from the 1930s to the 1970s.

Harris was one of the lead photographers for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s most influential black newspapers in the 20th century. The Courier represented the voice of the black community in this era. It advocated equality and justice, and Harris’ moving, yet eye-opening photographs perfectly complemented the voice of the paper. His inspiration was the city of Pittsburgh itself, as his photographs chronicled life in Pittsburgh’s black neighborhoods from the mid to late 1900s.

Beginning in the 1930s, Harris’ photos depict the joys and struggles of the black community in Pittsburgh’s storied Hill District. Ranging from images of children in a crowded swimming pool, to civil rights demonstrations, Harris’ work captured a side of the African-American experience in this era that was rarely visible in his contemporary American media. Since his photos depicted activities in daily life, such as weddings, church-groups, night-life, Little League games, and beauty pageants, his work is often viewed as celebrating the working class. However, he did not shy away from depicting life on the other side of the tracks. In addition to photos about family life and society, Harris’ impressive collection also includes photos of Muhammad Ali, Louis Armstrong, and John F. Kennedy.

Nicknamed “Teenie,” for his small stature, Harris was affectionately regarded by the African-American community as an icon. He was frequently seen at civic and family events, and people always looked over their shoulder in the hopes that Teenie would be there and would take their photo. Though he was popular among entertainment venues, Harris also photographed people walking down the street, sitting on their front porch, having a drink at a bar, or waiting at a beauty salon or barber shop. Harris’ works record a vibrant, thriving community, thus effectively redefining the 20th century a time that was plagued with racism to one overcome with determination.

In a response to NPR about Harris’ encapsulating work, Lulu Lippincott, curator of a new exhibition of Teenie Harris’ photos at the Carnegie Museum of Art, said, “[Teenie] conveys, in a way that I’ve never experienced before in photographs, the immediate experience of being in a different place, a different time.”

Harris’ archive, consisting of thousands of photographic negatives spanning over more than forty years, came without identifying information when the museum acquired his body of work in 2001, thus inspiring the project led by the Carnegie Museum of Art and STUDIO. Only about two percent of the individuals in all the photographs have been identified to date, after extensive interviews with the community members pictured in Harris’ photographs, and his contemporaries. In an effort to speed up the recognition process, STUDIO developed a set of image identification tools using machine learning and computer vision techniques with the help of the NEH grant.

“Image scans and a digital catalog have allowed us to share Harris’ work faster and with more people than traditional paper-based methods; moreover, digital technology allowed people to contribute their memories and knowledge to the archive more efficiently than ever before,” said Lippincott in a university press release.

The software developed by STUDIO will be able to identify the individuals in each photograph. These matches can then be confirmed by interview subjects. Remarkably, the software also becomes “smarter” as a person interacts with it, allowing it to make more accurate matches. This process is also useful for identifying objects, locations, and features in the photographs.

Zaria Howard, a junior in the School of Art pursuing a Bachelor of Humanities and Arts degree in art and statistics, proposed the idea for the project. As a student in Professor Golan Levin’s undergraduate Interactive Art and Computational Design class in the School of Art, Howard developed an interest in Harris’ image archive and the mystery behind the individuals in the photographs. Golan is leading the project as director of the STUDIO, along with David Newbury, who is an Enterprise Software and Data Architect at J. Paul Getty Trust.

In a university press release, Howard said “It’s exciting to be able to use computer vision and ML to add detail to the narrative Teenie Harris left Pittsburgh. Using technology to rediscover black history is rare and yet crucial to understanding American history as a whole.”

By improving this software, Harris’ photographs of the famous, the infamous, and the ordinary will hold new meaning as the people in the black-and-white images come to life. They will have names, families, and a history. They will be recognized and will serve as representation of the black community in the 20th century. They will reflect the successes, hardships, frustration, and grit of the community over forty years of an ever-changing America. They are forever captured in history through Harris’ extraordinary work.