“As a student of photography in the 70s I was amazed and dismayed that there were no African Americans in the history books of photography.”
Deborah Willis, Historian / Photographer
February 22nd, 2015. There is a disconnect afoot. A disconnect in which revered life affirming images found in generational African American family photo albums were never truly represented nor were they accepted within the pages of mainstream media. Could African Americans find their rightful place in the great American family album? Or, will they forever remain visual outliers in the pantheon of marginalized narratives deemed lesser-than. The power to reshape, coerce, validate, transform and control the masses through the medium of photography is the ultimate end game in media’s ability to influence cultural messaging. And that control is and has always been firmly affixed within the constructs of the white establishment. With measured delivery photographer Carrie Mae Weems stated, “Very early on I realized there was really something wrong the way in which the Black subjects had been imaged vis-à-vis the media. I had never seen Black people look like that.” Weems is but one of many chroniclers that formed the collective conscious elevating this image infused narrative into a war of a different kind. This became a war to reclaim the black body politic by showcasing self-affirming images both past and present within all facets of the African Americans diaspora while breaking down long standing colonial side-show narratives.
Suppression in all its mitigating forms cannot erase the empirical evidence we are witness to in this documentary; that there is and has always been a world captured on film of a Black Bourgeoisie class who experienced celebratory lives with a bespoke sense of style. And yet the most revered cultural institutions America has to offer whole-heartedly failed in their depiction of our true likeness. Instead, what we were served was a steady diet of subservient, dehumanizing reproductions reinforcing and perpetuating antiquated stereotypes that failed to address larger social issues of the day. The quintessential history of photography written in the 30’s, 60s and 70s featured Black people as subjects for the photographers but none of the photographers were Black. I ask you, where are all the images of African Americans framed through the complex lens of the Black family perspective? Through her pioneering work at the Schomburg Center for the Research in Black Culture, photographer / historian Deborah Willis embarked on a scaled up project 35 years in the making which chronicled the history of Black photographers. Director / Photographer Thomas Allen Harris has leveraged collective experiences to craft a poignant and uncomplicated documentary on the politics of the black image in photography. “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and The Emergence of a People” aptly delivers fearless social commentary on the Black family albums and beyond through the medium of photography by addressing the systematic disconnect between the realities found within, and the distorted fallacies represented to the wider world. Fear not, the push to reverse this crushing tide of cresting misnomers starts here.
Shortly after the birth of photography in France in 1839, Jules Lion (c.1810-1866), a free man of colour became the first to exhibit the daguerreotype process in New Orleans. Never one to remain in the shadows, pioneering photographer J. Presley Ball (c.1825–1904) opened up his studio in 1840 in Cincinnati, Ohio capturing wealthy white abolitionist while allowing people of colour to be the authors of their own images. And it is through these early legacy images that we are given a truly unadulterated perspective into the Black family album without the taint of slavery, black codes or Jim Crow clouding up the perspective. Civil Rights Activist Frederick Douglass (c. 1818–1895) recognized early on both the political as well as the visual struggle in achieving equality. Harris combines the thoughts and ideals of old world pioneers with the gravitas of present day masters all the while giving voice and steady meaning to the true image of blackness. And what would be the cost of losing sight of Douglass’s vision that freedom is inextricably tied to the power to create ones self-image? With a deft touch, along with films clips and staged composition, Harris showcases a litany of offensive product placement from yesteryear including Nigger Head Shoe Polish, Sambo Brands and Dainty Morsels Licorice Drops all to elicit the powerful dehumanizing imagery thus validating Douglass’s position. This juxtaposition to the Black family narrative is framed by others and not reclaim from within. A literary addendum to Harris’s documentary could easily be found in Marilyn Kern-Foxworth’s ground breaking book, AUNT JEMIMA, UNCLE BEN, AND RASTUS Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.
The collective voice of White and Black historians decodes the real truth reflected in the photographs we see before us. These beautiful stills more past than present harken back to a simpler time all contextualized for maximum effective by present day heir apparent. From the Harlem Renaissance and the influences of James Van Der Zee’s identity driven portraits to discussions around The Crisis magazine and Editor W.E.B. Du Bois use of photography to reengineer Black consciousness and form the premier crusading voice and images for civil rights movement. Through a Lens Darkly attacks controversial imagery head on by sheading new meaning to the staged spectacles of lynching. From photographs to postcards (yes you’re reading that right I said postcards), the ritual of lynching streamed into the realm of normalcy with spectators effortlessly posing just underneath broken and battered Black men. Slow smoldering spiritual rhythms only reinforce the depravity we see before us. And yet, no true narrative on Black photography would be complete without the inclusion of Gordon Parks (c. 1912 – 2006) genius. Capturing the raw enduring qualities of inner city life, as staff photographer for Life Magazine and freelancer at Vogue, Parks transcended the Black experience into iconic images that empowered through humanity.
VERDICT 4.0 / 5.0: You can pivot, sidestep, bypass or backslide all you want, the issues and images addressed through the one-two punch of Harris and Willis are cemented in a hyper vivid reality experienced by African Americans much to the dismay of non-believers and erasable revisionists. With some technical shortcoming notwithstanding, this highly charged poetically infused documentary on the black body politic exposes through composition and ancestral context the full tenor of each images. Much reverence and respect is shown for the most powerful and soul destroying images. Emmett Till’s desecration is all that need be said here. The hidden, subversive, incendiary and affirmational images and photographs will infect you without warning. Inspired through Deborah Willis’ 2002 tome “Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 To The Present”, Harris’s thorough immersion into the history of marginalized images within photography in the end transforms this solemn narrative into a celebration of stories and images captured by Black photographers who were often overlooked.
FINAL THOUGHT: Fade to black takes on a whole new meaning.
Genre: Documentary, History
Director: Thomas Allen Harris
Writer(s): Thomas Allen Harris, Don Perry, Paul Carter Harrison
Producer(s): Thomas Allen Harris, Deborah Willis, Ann Bennett, Don Perry
Associate Producer(s): Sabrina Hawkins, Sheila Maniar
Executive Producers: Kimberly Steward
Inspired by the Book: “Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers1840 to Present”
Composer: Vernon Reid
Director of Photographer: Martina Radwan
Animation / Special Effects: Dan Callahan
Runtime: 84 minutes
Premiere: CANADIAN PREMIERE
Cast: Carrie Mae Weems, Clarissa Sligh, Lyle Aston Harris, Jonathan Eubanks, Deborah Willis, Adger W. Cawans, Anthony Barboza, Lisa Gail Collins, Theresa Leinniger-Miller, Brian Wallis, Coco Fusco, Barbara Krauthamer, Nell Irvin Painter, Renee cox, Hank Willis Thomas, Robin D.G. Velley, Cheryl A. Hall, Ed Guerrero, Chuck Steward, Chester Higgins Jr., Marcus C. Bruce, Bridget Cooks, Glen Ligon, C. Daniel Dawson, Coreen Simpson, Lorna Simpson, Lola flash, Carla Williams, Arthe Anthony, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Pat Ward Williams, Dawoud Bey, Lewis Watts, Hugh Bell, Roy DeCarava, Robert Sengstacke, Ming Smith, Albert Chong, John Pinderhuges, Jamel Shabazz