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Through A Lens Darkly

by Louise Adams
Tuesday Feb 24, 2015
Through A Lens Darkly

Photographer and filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris bases "Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People" on co-producer and mentor Deborah Willis' book "Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present."

In the opening voice-over, James Baldwin asks viewers to "find a Black image in the body politic which is not demeaning." The 90-minute documentary illuminates the entirety of the African-American photographic experience through Harris' own story of family secrets as well as the search to find one's self in images, to negotiate "self-affirmation versus negation" with the "war of images within the American family album."

Photography began in 1839 in France, and Jules Lion, a free man of color, is credited in bringing the daguerreotype to the States to use in his New Orleans studio. The shiny surface of this process was like a mirror where many could see their own images superimposed over proto-photos and so became "authors of their own image" rather that stereotypical slave representations.

Abolitionist activist Sojourner Truth was the first to harness the power of photography, carefully crafting and then selling her self-possessed images to raise funds, saying, "I sell this shadow to support this substance."

Social reformer Frederick Douglass also used his image to accompany his oratory, and, with over 150 portraits made, became one of the most photographed Americans of the 19th century.

"A war of images within the American family album."

Other photographic phenomena such as the W.E.B. Du Bois-curated "A Small Nation of People" exhibit, showing Blacks as people of prosperity and intellect, was sent to the 1900 Paris Exhibition to counteract the zoo-like African colonial displays. Marcus Garvey recruited Harlem Renaissance photographer James Van Der Zee to promote his Universal Negro Improvement Association agenda while 101 female African-American photographers (one of whom was Harris' relative) captured their own points of view.

Photos of African-American soldiers from both world wars showed pride in stark contrast to the ubiquitous lynching photo postcards of the time. Mamie Till's decision to let Jet magazine to publish photos of her murdered -- and horrifically unrecognizable due to his torture and drowning -- son Emmett solidified the power of the photo for communities of color and fomented the civil rights movement months before Rosa Parks sat down.

Many modern Black photographers share recollections of their mentors and their own work, notably Willis' son Hank Willis Thomas, who reflects on the commodification of African-American men with striking pieces such as an Absolut vodka bottle packed with Middle Passage slaves and a whipping scar that looks like the Nike swoosh.

The DVD extras include "Digital Diaspora Family Reunion," bonus shorts and biographies. The music is by Miles Jay and Living Colour's Vernon Reid, and this poignant piece should be required viewing to elucidate a largely ignored part of history.

"Through a Lens Darkly"

Louise Adams is a Chicago freelance writer at www.treefalls.com (and a nom de guerre).


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