Through a Lens Darkly (First Run Features, NR)

Through_Lens_Darkly

Harris incorporates a variety of images, along with commentary and interpretation from a variety of voices. Many of the images are family photos, from 19th-century daguerreotypes of Civil War soldiers or carefully posed studio portraits to present-day century snapshots taken in suburban homes. 

Through_Lens_Darkly_500

I’ve always preferred looking at photographs to other forms of visual art, like paintings or sculpture, because a photograph can be interesting not only for its aesthetic qualities, but also because of its documentary nature. I’m certainly not going to argue that a photograph necessarily reproduces reality, whatever that means, because manipulation of photographic images is about as old as photography itself. But even outright manipulation often tells you something about the context of the photo (i.e., what is considered beautiful or ugly at the time, what deserves to be seen and what doesn’t), as do more mundane aspects of the photographer’s art, such as framing and composition.

You could say the same thing about histories of photography—they don’t tell “the truth” but at best one version of the truth, and what is missing may be as telling as what is included. Two things that have definitely gotten the short shrift in conventional histories of photography are images of African Americans and photographs taken by African Americans. Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, directed and narrated by Thomas Allen Harris, brings deserved attention not only to the work of many African-American photographers, but also to the wide variety of images of African Americans that haven’t made it into the standard histories of the art.

Harris incorporates a variety of images, along with commentary and interpretation from a variety of voices. Many of the images are family photos, from 19th-century daguerreotypes of Civil War soldiers or carefully posed studio portraits to present-day century snapshots taken in suburban homes. Others are portraits of famous people or document different aspects of life, from students working in a chemical laboratory to drag queens to a marching band suited up and ready for performance.

The photos in Through a Lens Darkly present strong opposition to received images of African Americans as slaves, buffoons, or criminals. Or worse, as primitive people or subhuman figures representing some undefined stage in the evolution from animal to human. Such images were widespread in 19th and early 20th century America, from advertisements to feature films (D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation being a prime example), and could easily be mistaken for reality in the minds of people who knew no better. Partly to counteract this tendency, W.E.B. DuBois created the “Exhibit of American Negroes” for the 1900 Paris International Exposition, presenting dignified photographs of African Americans in everyday activities such as working or gathering in their homes.

The greatest service performed by Through a Lens Darkly may simply be bringing a broadly diverse set of photographs of and photography by African Americans to public attention. Many of the images are anonymous and treated primarily as historical material than works of art, but Harris also spends some time looking at the work of a few specific African-American photographers, including James Van Der Zee, Gordon Parks (perhaps the one African-American photographer most people have heard of), Dawoud Bey, and Carla Williams. Many photos are presented with interpretation by other photographers, which is sometimes enlightening and sometimes borders on the irrelevant (Harris’ biographical speculations could easily have been trimmed), but are never allowed to overpower the simple strength of the images shown.

Further information about the film, and the Digital Diaspora Roadshow, is available here. Through a Lens Darkly draws on Deborah Willis’ book Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present, which is a must-read for anyone whose interest is piqued by this film. | Sarah Boslaugh

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply