‘Then and Now’ shows Pittsburgh’s queer history

By by Kathryn Beaty

Ten years ago, Pittsburgh artist and minister Deryck Tines was walking down the street in the… Ten years ago, Pittsburgh artist and minister Deryck Tines was walking down the street in the Strip District when he was overwhelmed by the discovery of black and white photographs from more than 50 years ago of people who appeared to be living his current life ‘mdash; they were black, queer and they lived in the Hill District. The lively black and white snapshots of elaborately coiffed, elegantly styled cross-dressers performing and having a good time in small clubs and bars, often among a mixed crowd of individuals, reveal the little-known but vibrant history of the Hill District’s queer community in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Tines knew this history needed to be seen and celebrated.’ In ‘Then and Now,’ on display at Space Gallery Downtown, Tines, guest-curator of the show, juxtaposes these and other photographs of this rich history from the Carnegie’s Teenie Harris Archive with photographs and other media that reveal the contemporary community as captured by 15 current Pittsburgh photographers. The main difference between then and now, Tines said, is that now there is a greater awareness of the queer community. More people have come out today, and more people are conscious of the queer lifestyle in general, which he credits to television, the Internet and the fact that people feel open to talk more freely now. ‘That we are able to celebrate openly, publicly in wonderful spaces [is what’s different today],’ said Tines. ‘In your space, in somebody’s space ‘mdash; how wonderful this thing is. So that’s what is happening here. This is a celebration of queerness or whatever that means or whatever it looks like, and it’s not just gay people but straight people celebrating with gay people. All this is not queer people … it’s queer and straight and black and white and old and young.’ The diversity of the show’s current works, from a collage of heavily muscled bare men’s chests to color photographs of the everyday street scene, illustrates the range of this increased consciousness. An iPod audio display includes individuals in today’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community sharing their experiences of confronting the stereotypes that exist even with this increased awareness. ‘Then and Now’ is the most recent phase of Tines’ The Carryin’ On Project. The first phase of the project was a show that included only the photographs from the Teenie Harris Archives. It opened at the Warhol Museum in the summer of 2007. After discovering the original photographs on the streets, Tines realized there might be more in the Carnegie’s Teenie Harris Archive. The archive contains more than 80,000 images taken by Harris in the Hill District’s heyday from the ’30s to the ’60s, when Tines explains the Hill District was the place to be, outside of New York and Chicago. Tines did find 40 additional photographs in the archives that included queer life. He paid to have the images printed from the negatives, and with the help of a $50,000 donation from a private friend, Tines was able to start the project. The Carryin’ On Project seeks to celebrate the queer community, especially that of the Hill District, by exposing its rich history. In celebrating queer life, Tines confronts the stigma and stereotypes that have historically surrounded the community. The project is named after the terminology that queer people often used to refer to their lives in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. ‘People didn’t use the terms gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender,’ said Tines. ‘It wasn’t spoken of like that. There were other terms for it. We were just carryin’ on.’ Tines explained that queer life was just another part of the vibrant Hill District community that Harris captured. ‘A lot of these people were performers,’ said Tines. ‘That’s how they made their living. So there was no real trouble because they were going to work. You went to work and then you went home. A lot of these people dressed like this every day. They went to church like this, went to the grocery store like this.’ The everyday scenes of diverse community members mixing together in private and public spaces and bringing their unique experiences into the larger world celebrates and affirms the life of every individual. ‘If people enjoy people and enjoy life,’ Tines said, ‘if people want to be larger than their surroundings, larger than their worlds, want to expand themselves, this is the exhibit to check out. Otherwise, it’s not for the faint of heart.’