Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Race Seen Through Viewfinders
A documentary film on African American photographic traditions.
‘Through a Lens Darkly,’ on African-American Photography

By A. O. SCOTTAUG. 26, 2014
New York Times

To describe Thomas Allen Harris’s “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People” as a history of African-American photography would be accurate but incomplete. Inspired by the book “Reflections in Black” (2000), Deborah Willis’s groundbreaking and thorough excavation of a vital and neglected photographic tradition, Mr. Harris’s film is a family memoir, a tribute to unsung artists and a lyrical, at times heartbroken, meditation on imagery and identity. The film is always absorbing to watch, but only once it’s over do you begin to grasp the extent of its ambitions, and just how much it has done within a packed, compact hour and a half.

Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a PeopleAUG. 27, 2014
Mr. Harris begins on a personal note, with an anecdote about his father, depicted in old snapshots as a handsome man with a distinctly melancholy, distracted air. We never learn too much about him, but we do travel back through the generations, spending a fair amount of time looking at formal and candid photos, many of them taken by the filmmaker’s maternal grandfather.

The family album serves as both a resource and a metaphor. The film examines the photographic record black Americans have made of their own experiences and also the ways they have been depicted by the larger society.

The contrast is jarring, to say the least. The familiar genres of domestic photography — graduation pictures, family reunion group shots, professional and amateur portraits of newlyweds and newborns — are juxtaposed with images that are horrific, demeaning and, sadly, just as familiar. Postcards depicting blacks as servile, lazy or criminal once circulated widely among white Americans, as did photographs taken of lynchings, not by outraged witnesses but by proud participants.

Such images can still cause pain, in no small part because the attitudes they reflect don’t entirely belong to the past. “Through a Lens Darkly” takes on a grim timeliness when you think about the role that photographs — shared and sometimes counterfeited on the Internet and social media — played in the aftermaths of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo., and Trayvon Martin’s killing in Florida in 2012. It is still depressingly easy to find images that pathologize and dehumanize young black men.

And Mr. Harris, an artist as well as a filmmaker, argues that the humanity, the full membership of African-Americans in the larger American family, is precisely what has been at stake in the work of black photographers. He tells their stories partly as a way of looking at history from a new angle and partly because their careers are fascinating and revealing in their own right.

A lot of knowledge about slavery, abolitionism, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement comes to us through pictures, but we don’t always think about their sources and meanings. Mr. Harris marshals an impressive collection of scholars, artists and photojournalists to help us understand what we see in portraits of enslaved blacks and 19th-century antislavery crusaders like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, and to appreciate the vision of pioneering 20th-century photographers like James VanDerZee and Gordon Parks.

Along the way, we learn about the importance of professional photographers in the segregated South and in Northern cities; about the semi-visibility of gay and transgender aunts, uncles and cousins in the collective black family album; and about the depth and variety of the African-American photographic tradition.

At times, Mr. Harris’s voice-over narration veers into academic abstraction or lyrical emotionalism in ways that undercut the eloquence of the images, but over all he is a wise and passionate guide to an inexhaustibly fascinating subject.

Through a Lens Darkly

Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People

Opens on Wednesday

Directed by Thomas Allen Harris; written by Mr. Harris, Don Perry and Paul Carter Harrison, based on the book “Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present,” by Deborah Willis; director of photography, Martina Radwan; edited by K. A. Miille and Matthew Cohn; music by Vernon Reid; produced by Mr. Harris, Ms. Willis, Ann Bennett and Mr. Perry; released by First Run Features. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. This film is not rated.

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