Ingeniously utilizing the concept of family photo albums as a starting point to convey how images are cultivated to create and project a certain ideal, Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People embarks on a rather startling and poignant journey. The film delves into photography’s long and disturbing history of misrepresenting black people. It exposes an artistic culture that, for years, only showcased blacks in a degrading and distorted light.
Directed by Thomas Allen Harris, Through a Lens Darkly weaves a vibrant exploration that effortlessly takes the viewer on a historical trip from slavery to the reconstruction period to modern day and all points in between. At each stage it captures the role that photographers and artists played in either documenting or propagating the positive and negative aspects of social change. Whether it is focusing on the ways black slaves were integrated in their owner’s family portraits or the freedom and empowerment that black civil war soldiers felt having their pictures taken, there is more than a wealth of intriguing information within the film to digest.
The power of photography, especially in regards to how an image can say more than words, is prominent in the film. Some of most chilling moments come when Harris highlights the numerous seemingly regular images of everyday American life (e.g. friends gathering for a party, hanging out near the lake, etc). Upon closer examination of these photos you can see bodies of black individuals who have been lynched. Hanging like ornaments on a tree, the images are a harsh reminder of a time whose reverberations are still felt today.
The brilliant thing about Harris’ film is that, despite its large scope and ambition, it manages to feel intimate and contained. Through the Lens Darkly gives as much weight to the historical context as it does to the important role female photographers have played, the groundbreaking work that emerging artists are making today, etc. Harris not only looks at the camera’s role in its depiction of black culture, but also intersperses his own family history as well. He finds a great source of inspiration and pain when focusing on the ways his ancestors embraced the camera and the strategic methods used to ensure certain individuals were left out of the family albums. In regards to the latter, Harris’s long reaching brush strokes only lightly hit the canvas when documenting the struggle related to representing homosexuality within the black community in a positive manner. One gets the impression that he could have delved deeper into that subject, but practice more restraint than was need. Still, with the film covering so much ground, this is a minor quibble.
Coming off a year where celebrities like Kim Kardashian are supposedly “breaking the internet” by unknowingly perpetuating racial stereotypes, the sense of urgency in Harris’ film feels more timely now than ever. Regardless of whether you have a vested interest in photography or all things media, Through the Lens Darkly should be mandatory viewing.
Wednesday, February 11, 5 PM, Carlton Cinema