'Then and Now' Delves into Changing Times

Article excerpt

It's a great Christmas shot by the legendary Pittsburgh Courier photographer Charles "Teenie" Harris (1908-98) -- a group portrait with a Christmas theme, featuring two "ladies," one wearing a Caribbean-style costume with Christmas ornaments in her headdress, the other in a Gay '90s outfit, sitting at a bar next to a man in a bowtie.

This was Christmas in the Hill District in 1955, and the bar was none other than Little Paris, a place known to be frequented by the "ladies" depicted, who actually were cross-dressing men.

That photo is one of more than 40 vintage photographs featured in "Then and Now," an exhibit at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's SPACE gallery in the Cultural District. Organized by Deryck Tines, a Pittsburgh-based historian, performer and artist, the show also includes selected works by 15 Pittsburgh photographers that touch on the current gay culture in Pittsburgh.

It's a little-discussed fact that Pittsburgh has a long history with cross-dressers and transgendered individuals. In fact, ask any old timer, and you're sure to be regaled with storied memories of seeing the most elegantly dressed cross-dressers either shopping or going about their daily tasks Downtown for the better part of the past century. But what many don't know is that, from the 1930s through the '50s there were nightclubs and bars -- six or so once located where Mellon Arena is now -- that were known to be frequented by cross-dressers as well as a variety of individuals of different orientations.

"What was incredible is that it just wasn't one group that frequented these bars," Tines says. "(The patrons) were white and black, and queer and cross-dressers. The Hill was the kind of community where everything was integrated. It was phenomenal."

Tines says not all of the vintage photographs that make up the "Then" section of this exhibit are the "One Shots" of 1930s and 1940s life in the Hill District that Harris came to be known for. He earned the nickname "One Shot Harris" based on his ability to capture the essence of his subject in just one take. Many are studio shots by him, and several more are by anonymous photographers that were found among Harris' archives by noted Harris expert Dennis Morgan.

Of the Harris photographs on display, the studio shots are by far the best, such as one untitled work that features a male dancer in an exotic feathered costume in a reclining pose against a curtain. …