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 TIME.com. Follow her on Twitter @miatramz.


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