Through A Lens Darkly: History and Identity in African American Photography

Through A Lens Darkly, an extraordinary new documentary by filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris, is at-once a deep, rich dive into the history of African American photography and — transcending the subject at hand — a master class in visual literacy. Based on the book Reflections in Black by artist and photo historian Deborah Willis, the film posits that the history of black photography as it is currently represented is incomplete.

The film makes clear that history is inexorably bound to visual representation. Harris, who thoughtfully and intimately narrates the film, forces the audience to reconsider any preconceived notions it might have about what a photograph is and what photography’s place is in history. Who made a photograph, why they made it, and what context it was shown in is just as important as the photograph that wasn’t taken, that wasn’t shown, that hasn’t been preserved for future consideration.

Harris traces the history of the representation of black people in American culture from the very beginnings of photography to the present, culling more than 15,000 images and 52 interviews with some of the most important living African American photo historians and photographers, including Deborah Willis, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Anthony Barboza, Hank Willis-Thomas, Glenn Ligon, and Hugh Bell.

It took Harris and producer Don Perry 10 years to finish the film, which presents rare daguerreotypes, vintage prints and advertisements, family portraits, and a comprehensive survey of contemporary black photography. It also left them with hours of unused footage from the interviews they conducted, which is now being repurposed into short films, titled Short Shots, comprising an invaluable oral history of black photography. In the Short Shot below, which Harris and Perry have shared with Lightbox, the filmmakers capture legendary jazz photographer Hugh Bell on May 13, 2005 in one of the very last interviews he gave before his death on Oct. 31, 2012.

The scope of the film is a testament to Harris and Perry’s comprehensive artistic vision. The documentary inspired a larger transmedia project titled Digital Diaspora Family Reunion, which includes a social media campaign, website and traveling roadshow which encourages audiences to upload and share their own family photos. Harris and Perry have begun to unearth parts of African American history that may have otherwise disappeared, and have brought new authors to light. They are in the process of slowly creating a vast database not only of photography, but of identity and history.

Through A Lens Darkly will have it’s New York premiere at The Museum of Modern Art, on Feb. 28, 2014. The screening will be followed by a discussion with Thomas Allen Harris and Deborah Willis.

Mia Tramz is an Associate Photo Editor at Follow her on Twitter @miatramz.

Related Topics: , , , , , , ,

Latest Posts

2014.  Gaza.  Palestine.  Schoolchildren head to class at the Sobhi Abu Karsh School in the Shujai'iya neighborhood. Operation Protective Edge lasted from 8 July 2014 – 26 August 2014, killing 2,189 Palestinians of which 1,486 are believed to be civilians. 66 Israeli soldiers and 6 civilians were killed.  It's estimated that 4,564 rockets were fired at Israel by Palestinian militants.

Inside Gaza with Photographer Peter van Agtmael

What photographer Peter van Agtmael encountered in Gaza changed the way he worked.

Read More
WASTELAND PERMITTED USE: This image may be downloaded or is otherwise provided at no charge for one-time use for coverage or promotion of National Geographic magazine dated December 2014 and exclusively in conjunction thereof.  No copying, distribution or archiving permitted.  Sublicensing, sale or resale is prohibited.     REQUIRED CREDIT AND CAPTION: All image uses must bear the copyright notice and be properly credited to the relevant photographer, as shown in this metadata, and must be accompanied by a caption, which makes reference to NGM.  Any uses in which the image appears without proper copyright notice, photographer credit and a caption referencing NGM are subject to paid licensing.        Mandatory usage requirements: (Please note: you may select 5 branded images for online use and 3 images for print/unbranded)1. Include mandatory photo credit with each image2. Show the December cover of National Geographic somewhere in the post (credit: National Geographic) unless using only one image3. Provide a prominent link to: the top of your piece, ahead of the photos 4. Mention that the images are from "the December issue of National Geographic magazine” GOWANUS CANALNew York, New YorkPollutants: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury, lead, copperYear listed: 2010Carved from a tidal estuary 160 years ago, the Gowanus Canal is Brooklyn’s industrial artery—and a deeply polluted waterway. Even so, it’s frequented by herons, seagulls, crabs, and canoeists. Defying local fears of economic stigma, the EPA listed the canal as a Superfund site in 2010. It hopes to start dredging contaminated mud in 2016.

Photojournalism Daily: Nov. 24, 2014

Mideast Israel Palestinians

The Best Pictures of the Week: Nov. 14 – Nov. 21


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 19,278 other followers