Saturday, September 6, 2014

Through a Lens Darkly

      gif animation by Marilyn Stern from trailer

Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People is a must-see film by Thomas Allen Harris, 10 years in the making. Released Jan 17, 2014. Premiered in NYC Aug 29, 2014. HELD OVER AT FILM FORUM, NYC, THROUGH TUES SEPT 16, 2014. 

Lens Darkly is based on the book published in 2000 Reflections in Black by Deborah Willis, who also co-produced and co-wrote Lens Darkly.  Her book is considered to be the first comprehensive history of African American photographers. One reviewer called it epic and magnificent, said it "rewrites American history." The same can surely be said of Harris and Willis's film.
"Our salvation as a people, as a culture, depends on salving the wounds of this war. A war of images within the American family album," says Harris in the movie's trailer.
In the war he speaks of, postcards played a big role, and they take a well-deserved drubbing in the film. The ones shown are, admittedly, all too typical. In the early 20th century, in both north & south, racial stereotypes were good for marketing -- of postcards, movies, breakfast cereal, you name it. At the least, they bolstered a sense of white entitlement and superiority. At worst, they helped justify Jim Crow segregation, oppression, the reign of terror of lynchings and burnings. Yes, there were even postcards made of these horrors, sent through the mail with cheerful greetings. And these too are included in Lens Darkly, giving double entendre and deep resonance to the film's title.
The racism in old postcards has long depressed and angered me. For the past several years, I've been on the lookout for "outliers" -- cards that portray African Americans and other people of color with dignity, or at least race neutrality. My collection is small but growing. I promise to post a sampling in this blog soon.
The point of Lens Darkly is not that such positive images didn't exist. Rather, it is that Americans of color must take control of their own visual representation.  In fact, the film shows, there have been photographers of color almost since the inception of photography, though their work has sadly sunk into obscurity. This eloquent and exhaustively-researched film should help remedy this.
In one and a half hours, Harris and Willis's film takes on huge range and complexity. One motif is how photography has been used to both belittle and oppress, but also to empower. Many viewers will be familiar with the so-called ethnographic photos of the 19th century, and images of Africans and other "barbarians" on display at fairs. But who knew that Booker T. Washington established a photography department at Tuskegee U with a grant from George Eastman?  Or that W.E.B. Du Bois curated an exhibit of Afro-American photography for the Paris Exposition of 1900, allowing Europeans a more accurate view of a culture hidden from white Americans? 

The film gives equal emphasis to such superstars as James Van Der Zee, Roy DeCarava and Gordon Parks, and little- or un-known photographers in all eras, including black women studio photographers of the 1920s(?) and LGBT fine art photographers of today.
Harris, a photographer himself and quite charming guy (I met him at a New York screening), clearly elicits trust and ease from his subjects. Carrie Mae Weems, for instance, openly tells him/us that her work is about loss and a craving for love.
Artistically inspiring. Historically enlightening. And a non-stop display of amazing photography at the extremes of ugly and beautiful.  Through a Lens Darkly is essential viewing. It opens across the U.S. this Fall (2014). 


  1. Very well-written! Fantastic, actually. (Slower animation would be preferred).