'Through a Lens Darkly' exposes the power of self-image

Review: Thomas Allen Harris probes into African-American culture with his film 'Through a Lens Darkly,' but occasionally gets in the way of his own story.

Through A Lens Darkly, a documentary film given to us by director Thomas Allen Harris, kicked off the 12th annual Syracuse University Human Rights Film Festival on Thursday, Sept. 18. In it, photographs, interviews and historical footage are expertly woven into a montage exposing a hole in the history books where black photographers should be.

Ninety-two minutes of photographic stills propelled by Harris' narration, audio and video material, the film revolves around the distorted portrayal of the black community in America. The film is an investigation into who African Americans are and seeks to accurately represent their history. For Harris, the only honest depiction of the black community we have is found in the family album. A collection of photos meant only for the eyes of loved ones becomes a vessel of truth.

Based on professional photographer Deborah Willis' book Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers - 1840 to the Present, the film takes on the challenge of turning an encyclopedic record of black photographers and their visual experiences into a compelling narrative.

The film is mostly successful in accomplishing this. Harris leads us through the film by sharing his own childhood account of his father's abandonment and his subsequent lack of photos of him parallels the missing photos of the black community in America. However, at times Harris' narration gets in the way of the images and his articulation of his father's shunning of the camera becomes repetitive while the ongoing reel of history flies by at a rapid pace.

An exploration of issues of race was to be expected, but the film places equal importance on identity and our self-image. A transmedia project started six years ago, the film is the first attempt to collect and archive photos of black Americans. Twenty-thousand photos are used in the film, as are 46 interviews of photographers, artists and historians who help us understand the context and the meaning of the images. And not once does it feel like too much information.

The language of the film was often related to war. The film is a "war of images," where the weapon of choice is the camera. The battle is between the distorted and dehumanizing photos of black Americans and their own photos depicting a reality fighting to be seen.

Harris a curator of images produced an ambitious and visually stimulating film. He will leave you thinking about the film long after you’ve watched it. He presented an African-American history through the lens of black families' cameras and by showing the important work of great photographers such as James Van Der Zee and Gordon Parks.

However, in his quest to make the invisible visible, Harris forgets a few very visible members of the black community today. To his detriment, Harris shies away from discussing the achievements of modern black celebrities who have carefully carved their own self-images. President Obama and his family are highly photographed and have a large family album to boast of. What about them?

Post new comment

* Field must be completed for your comment to appear on The NewsHouse
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.