A timely reminder of how images of African-Americans have been stereotyped and demonized by popular media, “Through a Lens Darkly” recounts the lengthy history of that misrepresentation while also celebrating the contrasting, oft-overlooked work of black photographers. Inspired by scholar/museum curator Deborah Willis’ 2002 tome “Reflections in Black,” a definitive study of those artists, Thomas Allen Harris’ polished documentary feature makes its theatrical bow at New York’s Film Forum on Aug. 27. While bigscreen impact will be minor, classroom and educational broadcast life will be long.
As first-person narrator, veteran photographer/filmmaker Harris initially appears to be imposing a gratuitous autobiographical element on a much larger story, stressing the “hurt and shame of absence” brought on by his father’s early abandonment as a microcosm of blacks’ marginalization from mainstream American history. But he soon turns over the mic to many other relevant voices and ballasts his own, as we realize his family (at least on his mother’s side) had devoted to chronicling itself via photographs going back many generations. Preserved in family albums, these images of upwardly mobile dignity were —as Willis found in her career-long, broader research — an antithesis to popular “darkie” stereotypes.
The latter are vividly recalled in montages of offensive advertisements, films, staged “humorous” shots, et al., which depicted blacks as buffoons, criminals and/or savages. A particularly appalling section flashes back to the lengthy vogue for grisly lynching photos, in which charred, mutilated and hung corpses are shown, usually surrounded by gloating white vigilantes and spectators. Incredibly, these constituted a cottage industry for some years, being sold and treated like novelty postcards.
But the primary focus here is on the contrasting legacy of black photographers, which Harris and Willis trace back as far as a Cincinnati daguerrotype maker of the 1840s, whose customers included well-to-do black families and white abolitionists. Those who followed usually served the black community exclusively, capturing formal portraits of middle-class respectability and accomplishment that were a far cry from the more popular “race” imagery ofthe day. Activist leaders like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois (who curated an exhibit of photographed African-American life at a Parisian World’s Fair) stressed the importance of a dignified personal presentation, even if that meant copying the demeanor and dress of the white bourgeoisie.
There are brief portraits here of several star shutterbugs, from Harlem Renaissance chronicler James Van Der Zee to Gordon Parks (whose work for Life and Vogue magazines was a major glass-ceiling-breaker) and Roy DeCarava. The chronological narrative doesn’t extend much past the civil rights era; instead, the pic weaves in commentary throughout from modern artists in various media (including Carrie Mae Weems and Renee Cox) whose work often appropriates and reinterprets the inflammatory African-American depictions of the mainstream yore. The point, as ever, is for to “the Negro … to find some image of himself or herself that is not demeaning,” as James Baldwin put it a half-century ago.
Though a tad uneven, as a whole the documentary cannily juggles an overview of African-American history in general with the specifics of its photographic representation and talents. Harris sometimes echoes the work of his late mentor Marlon Riggs (“Tongues Untied”) in poetic editorial rhythms, while elsewhere hewing to a more straightforward PBS-style approach.