Written by Leigh Kolb.
Many of the images in Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People that are most familiar are the horrifying caricatures of African Americans in advertising and the photos–that were often shared as postcards–of lynchings.
Of course, those images are not what Through a Lens Darkly–the beautiful documentary about the history of both the literal and figurative African American family album, and groundbreaking Black photographers throughout history–focuses on. Those images are ingrained into our visual and cultural psyche, burning feelings of contempt, pity, disgust, and denial into white viewers’ eyes and hearts. The lens that America looks through is white. The subject of America’s family album is white. When Black Americans have been the subject in photography, too often these images have been distorted to fit a racist, white supremacist narrative.
James Baldwin said in 1963,
“Every Negro boy and every Negro girl born in this country until this present moment undergoes the agony of trying to find in the body politic, in the body social, outside himself/herself, some image of himself or herself which is not demeaning.”
Filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris digs into his own family album and reflects on the images of African Americans throughout history as well as the African American image-makers throughout history to find those images. It’s a stunning documentary, and does an incredible job showing the impact that photography has had and still has in our culture. Harris says that he was trying to “reconcile two conflicting legacies”–“self affirmation vs. negation.” “Our salvation of a people, of a culture,” he says, “depends on salvaging our images.” This, he says, would be the true “American family album.”[caption id="attachment_18637" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Harris, with a poster featuring his grandparents[/caption]
Deborah Willis‘ groundbreaking Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers from 1840 to the Present inspired Harris, and her extensive research (the project took more than 30 years) uncovered those image-makers and images that went forgotten for too long.
For example, in 1840–just one year after photography was invented in France–Jules Lion (an African American man) opened a daguerrotype studio in New Orleans. Ten years later, Louis Agassiz, a scientist from Harvard, worked with a daguerreian in South Carolina to capture images of slaves. The contrast of a free Black photographer and the “specimen”-like treatment of the slaves (and the fact that both were largely forgotten or lost) is, at its core, the contrast–the double consciousness–of the imagery of Black America.
The photo of Gordon, the escaped slave-turned Union solider, and his brutally whipped back was used in Harper’s to display the “transformation of slave to warrior,” and his courage and patriotism. Over time, it turned in to a photo of victimization. The film points out that photos of the Black soldiers in the Civil War (nearly 200,000 fought) are often absent. When we see those photos, Robin D.G. Kelley points out, we see the reality that slaves freed themselves. If we don’t see those images, we stay swept up in the myth that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. Kelley says, “We’re torn between the stories we’ve been told, and the truths we see reflected in these images.”
The photos of everyday African Americans during the Reconstruction era show, as the film points out, “The best American democracy has to offer.” The hope, the humanity, and the freedom that those years promised was all too often hidden or violently thwarted, with the establishment of Black Codes and Jim Crow laws.
And then Birth of a Nation. Images of the “Black brute” dominated; advertisements with caricatures of Black people, and staged photographs with Black men committing petty crimes became popular. The images were terrifying and terrorizing to Black Americans (by design), and the narrative of white supremacy was clear. As white families would send each other postcards of photos of lynchings, the American family album was clearly a segregated, exclusive set of images. Black Americans have consistently had to fight to find themselves remembered and represented accurately.
Just as Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass knew that their photographed images were essential to their reputations, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois also worked to highlight images of successful Black Americans. From the 1900 Paris Exposition to the cover of The Crisis magazine, complex, beautiful, humanizing photographs of Black Americans showcased that they were a “rising” people, far exceeding the savage, brutish images that audiences were used to.
It is powerful that the parts of the film that show the painful images that white Americans were responsible for are relatively short. It’s not a film about white Americans; it’s a film about finding and creating a complex, complete family album that belongs to and features African Americans. And as important as it is to know and be faced with the horrors that white Americans created, that’s not what Harris dwells on. Not because these images aren’t powerful and tragic, but because this isn’t a film about white people. That’s important.
Another noteworthy part of the film is the driving force of women’s voices in the documentary itself, women’s talent, and the historical context of women photographers (Louise Jefferson, Winifred Hall Allen, Vera Jackson, Ella Watson, Florestine Perrault Collins, and others are discussed as pioneering photographers and business-owners).[caption id="attachment_18640" align="aligncenter" width="480"] Carrie Mae Weems: from The Kitchen Table Series[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_18643" align="aligncenter" width="480"] Renée Cox: Yo Mama’s Pieta[/caption]
Through interviews with photographers and historians, Harris weaves together a history lesson and a gallery of images, highlighting the image-makers and the audiences–those creating the album, and those in the album. There is so much in this relatively short documentary, but it’s also just the beginning. We find ourselves wanting to research more, and to be surrounded by the photographs of Carrie Mae Weems, Renée Cox, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Gordon Parks, Ernest Withers, Roy DeCarva, James VanDerZee, and Hank Willis Thomas.[caption id="attachment_18635" align="aligncenter" width="480"] Gordon Parks[/caption]
We want the images of Black Civil War and WWI soldiers to be more familiar than the images of racist caricatures. We want Gordon’s back to symbolize him as a slave-turned-warrior, not a victim to be forgotten. We want to swipe a copy of The Sweet Flypaper of Life. We want a new American family album.
Toward the end of the film, Weems asks how she can “get you to love me back.” This inquiry is reminiscent of the Langston Hughes’ poem, “I, Too”:
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.They send me to eat in the kitchenWhen company comes,But I laugh,And eat well,And grow strong.
Tomorrow,I’ll be at the tableWhen company comes.Nobody’ll dareSay to me,“Eat in the kitchen,”Then.
Besides,They’ll see how beautiful I amAnd be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
Through a Lens Darkly takes photographs and photographers and places them in a more true, complete, and beautiful American family album–one that should be at all of our tables. We see how beautiful it is.
Recommended: Toronto Black Film Festival Review: Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers & the Emergence of a People by Zeba Blay at Shadow and Act; Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe; Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present by Deborah Willis; American History Through an African American Lens; “Light And Dark: The Racial Biases That Remain In Photography”
Leigh Kolb is a composition, literature, and journalism instructor at a community college in rural Missouri.