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'Through a Lens Darkly' Should Have Let the Pictures Tell the Story

Through a Lens Darkly surveys the often hidden or forgotten history of African Americans as photographic subjects as well as photographers.


Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People

Director: Thomas Allen Harris
Cast: Deborah Willis, Lyle Ashton Harris, Carrie Mae Weems, Hank Willis Thomas, Robin D. G. Kelly
Distributor: First Run Features
Rated: Not rated
Year: 2014
US DVD release date: 2015-02-10

Late in his documentary about photography and race, Thomas Allen Harris inserts a portrait of his grandfather into a montage with Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois. It’s an unwitting tableau of the miscalculation at the heart of this fascinating, yet flawed film.

Based on photographer and historian Deborah Willis’s book Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present, Through a Lens Darkly surveys the often hidden or forgotten history of African-Americans as photographic subjects as well as photographers.

Harris places this history in the context of the effect of photography on the self-image of African-Americans, opening the film with an excerpt from James Baldwin’s 1963 address at Castlemont High School in California: "Every Negro boy and every Negro girl born in this country until this present moment undergoes the agony of trying to find in the body politic, in the body social, outside himself/herself, some image of himself or herself which is not demeaning."

The whole of photographic representation, images produced by amateurs and professionals for private or public consumption, make up what Harris calls "the American family photo album", the ground for a "battle between two legacies: self-affirmation and negation." Harris illustrates the amateur end of the spectrum through his own history, especially the work of his maternal grandfather, who was the photographic chronicler of the family.

And that’s where the film loses traction. The story and the images -- which Harris entwines throughout the film as its backbone -- are compelling, but as the filmmaker presents it, the narrative pales in comparison to Willis’s work.

Her research documents the work of, among many others: Jules Leon, who introduced the daguerreotype process to New Orleans; James Presley Ball, who opened a studio in Cincinnati and established a community of black photographers, including several family members; and Thomas Askew, whose portraits were part of the DuBois-curated, prosperity-themed exhibit "A Small Nation of People" included in the Negro Exposition at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair.

Willis and the historians, photographers, and artists interviewed for the film -- Carrie Mae Weems, Lisa Gail Collins, Robin D. G. Kelley, and Renee Cox among them -- illustrate the engagements of the battle Harris has identified. The portraits black veterans of the Civil War and World War I had taken of themselves in uniform and photographs dating from the Harlem Renaissance, for example, counter shots of slaves and lynchings and stereotyped images from advertising.

We learn how Washington, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth, like DuBois, used photography -- images of themselves, and images they sponsored or encouraged -- to counter stereotypes of African-Americans in circulation in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

Certainly, Harris’s grandfather was carrying on the project of using photography to supply honest, affirming images of African-American families. Still, as with the clumsy insertion in the montage, Harris’s narrative is a thin, at times overwrought counterpoint to what really anchors the film: Willis’s thorough, rich documentation of the historical record.

Of his father’s refusal to photograph his family, for example, Harris says, "These absences have left a hole, wide and deep, making it nearly impossible to connect to a part of myself... the part called “love.”’ Harris’s delivery in the film’s voiceovers doesn’t help matters. Overly earnest and melodramatic, you can see why there’s a voiceover coach in the credits. It wasn’t enough.

The DVD extras reveal a more compelling context for Harris’s family history. Several shorts document the filmmaker’s Digital Diaspora Family Reunion project: a web portal where people can upload images, videos, audio, and text; but also a traveling show that solicits material for the portal, à la Antiques Roadshow. Footage from a stop on Staten Island shows how the project engages locals and marshals existing resources.

The clip features Sylvia D’Alessandro, executive director of the Sandy Ground Historical Society, and Victor A. Brown, senior pastor of the Mt. Sinai United Christian Church, who points to the simplicity and power of the project: "I think our history should be memorialized, and what better way to do that than through pictures and through videos".

Excerpts from interviews not included in Through a Lens Darkly reveal more personal moments with artists and photographers from the film. Taken together, the extras capture a sense of community, as well as the shared project of documenting African-Americans’ lives, in a way the film proper doesn’t.

Splash image of director Thomas Allen Harris by Russell Frederick for Chimpanzee Productions, Inc.

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