Multihyphenate Creative Kevin Harry's Mother Shifted the Paradigms of Luxury through Family Photos
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Siblings Krystal, Kimberly, Kevin, and Curtis (father), who is holding Karen PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SHIRLEY HARRY COLLECTION
Television producer Kevin Harry’s mother, Shirley, unknowingly shifted the paradigms of luxury simply by photographing, filming, and documenting her children’s lives in America. Thus, she created a legacy.
The family patriarch PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SHIRLEY HARRY COLLECTION
When people ask the mission of my zine, KH, I often joke, “If Martians ever come to Earth in the future, they’ll know what Black folks looked like during my lifetime.”
Truth is, it was only partly a joke. The Martian part I’m not so sure of. But I’ve always seen KH as a document that will forever show the beauty of Black people. I just didn’t know how it would live on for future generations.
When I first published KH with portraits taken by me, in September 2014, I didn’t think of it being archived and preserved in research centers, libraries, and private collections.
A young Kevin and Krystal in their childhood home’s kitchen. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SHIRLEY HARRY COLLECTION
It was, however, important to keep copies for my archive. They are part of my legacy, sharing space with family photos and my own rich collection of books, periodicals, and ephemera.
Taking photos and maintaining an archive runs in my blood. My mother, Shirley Harry, is the ultimate archivist. Thanks to her, my youth is well documented. I like to tell people that photos exist of me from every year of my life through the very present.
Growing up in Detroit, Mama snapped hundreds of photos with an Instamatic camera and sometimes with a Polaroid.
Kevin with his pet dog PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SHIRLEY HARRY COLLECTION
She effortlessly documented our family. Seeing her with a camera was nothing unusual. She took pictures of me and my four sisters regularly—from very ordinary moments to special occasions. The photos, often printed at a Fotomat, ended up in one of those psychedelic print photo albums from the ’70s. Then she added film… recording us on her Sears Reflex Zoom Super 8 camera.
Periodically, friends will show me images of their children on their smartphones. The pictures are always adorable. And that leads me to ask them if they print the pictures. How can you cherish an image if you can’t touch it?
The Harry siblings. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SHIRLEY HARRY COLLECTION
It’s one of the reasons I prefer printing KH, rather than regular digital issues. I want people to flip through the pages and savor the images. I think there is a certain reverence you have for an image when you can actually touch it.
A folder of images on a computer doesn’t really compare to a beautiful album of pictures. Sipping tea and turning the pages or shuffling through loose photos is an intimate experience.
Shirley, the family’s matriarch PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SHIRLEY HARRY COLLECTION
My mother didn’t see herself as a photographer and filmmaker, but she was. I’ve been told that the body of work she created is rare for a Black family in the ’60s and ’70s.
Some of the most impactful visuals of my youth came by way of my father’s barbershop, Harry’s Barber Shop, on the east side of Detroit.
The siblings with their father, Curtis PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SHIRLEY HARRY COLLECTION
Growing up, I often spent Saturdays at the shop. My job was sweeping up the hair in an atmosphere heavy with the smell of Afro Sheen and the sound of hearty laughter. All the while I soaked in powerful imagery of Black men from all walks of life, getting their Afros shaped up or getting the haircut of the day, a “quo vadis”—a low, close-cropped haircut, similar to what’s called a “bald fade” today.
Harry’s parents holding his sister Karen PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SHIRLEY HARRY COLLECTION
“THERE IS A DIRECT CORRELATION BETWEEN THE ARCHIVE OF EBONYS BACK IN DETROIT AND MY OWN EXTENSIVE ARCHIVE.” –KEVIN HARRY
My father ran a very democratic place where people from all walks of life gathered and were welcome. So spending time there with him helped me understand there is no one definition of how Black people should look.
My dad also loved a crowd and the energy it brought.
Kevin dressed up with his father. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SHIRLEY HARRY COLLECTION
One of my fondest memories—the one that I think directly impacts the vision of the zine the most—is my family’s annual visit to the African World Festival on the riverfront in downtown Detroit. From the dashikis to the Afros, it was the personification of the iconic phrase “Black is Beautiful.”
I can vividly recall being mesmerized by the crowd. It is no coincidence that I take all the photos in my zines at festivals attended by mostly people of color.
Krystal, Kevin and Kimberly Harry PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SHIRLEY HARRY COLLECTION
There are neatly stacked EBONY magazines in the basement of our home. I would wait patiently each month for them to arrive. I was hypnotized by page after page of incredible imagery. There is a direct correlation between the archive of EBONYs back in Detroit and my own extensive archive.
One of the cornerstones of Mom’s archive are original copies of the Detroit Free Press from the riots that erupted in the Motor City in the summer of 1967.
They were stored in a piano bench. My mom knew nearly 55 years ago that these yellowed newspapers would allow her children to understand race relations then, now and in years to come.
Those family photos, she knew they’d bring joy to her children today and in the years to come. And what a gift to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They look at the photos and film with awe.
The Harry family PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SHIRLEY HARRY COLLECTION
It is with that same awe that I hope people will see KH in the future. What will flipping through the pages of the zine 50 years or 100 years from now elicit?
In January of 2021, I started the process of donating a copy of all issues of KH to The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Curtis Harry playing the piano. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SHIRLEY HARRY COLLECTION
It is regarded as “one of the world’s premier centers for the study of the Black experience.” Students and scholars will be able to study the images.
What I find important in these portraits is that the people look exactly as they’d like the world to see them.
Karen and Cheryl Harry PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SHIRLEY HARRY COLLECTION
With KH now safe and secure at Moorland-Spingarn, their Blackness, like the Blackness in Mom’s photos and in Dad’s barbershop, will shine forever.