As a photography major in college, I studied all the “famous” photographers and their “important” images. But what we did not see were photographers of color and their important images. Did they not exist or were they just not in the canon? The eye-opening documentary Through a Lens Darkly tackles that question and looks at the rich and largely ignored history of black photographers in America. It also takes on the notion of identity that we draw from photos and the distortions that African-Americans have had to endure since the beginning of photo-technology. The film is based on the book “Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present,” by Deborah Willis, which must be the most exhaustive study of black photographers, images of African-Americans, and the use of photographs as propaganda in both positive and negative ways as a vehicle for social change. Fortunately director Thomas Allen Harris doesn’t go too far into the academic arguments. He smartly begins from a personal viewpoint, using the photographic traditions of his own family as a jumping off point.
The film weaves his personal stories with those of academics, historians, working photographers and artists, alongside some great images and archival footage. I was particularly taken with MacArthur fellow and artist Carrie Mae Weems and her use of the camera as a way to assert power through storytelling. Also of interest were the stories of how Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass both used photography effectively to counter the stereotypes of black Americans. The film is full of great imagery and truly thought provoking commentary. I think I could do with a second viewing, and I say that rarely. The film will most likely appeal to photographers and artists, but as a testament to the power of photography as a tool to self-identify, I’d hope a lot more people would see it.
It isn’t a perfect film. The narration is somewhat overdone, the family stories take more time than they merit, and the editing is a bit too arty. And no doubt there is a lot more to be said about the subject, but Through a Lens Darkly definitely takes a huge leap into the void of African-American photographic history and contemporary identity issues. It is more than worth your time to see it.