Thomas Allen Harris’ “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People” screens at the Toronto Black Film Festival’s 3rd edition, which kicked off yesterday, and will run through February 15th.
The documentary begins with a memory. It’s the kind of memory that most black people,
in one way or another, can recall: the moment when we realized we were black, and
that, somehow, being black was something to be ashamed of. For director Thomas
Allen Harris, that moment came early in his boyhood, when his father snapped at him
for having too much Vaseline on his face. His father’s words, seemingly innocuous,
stung. “Do you want people out there to think you’re a greasy monkey?”
photography, Harris weaves a tale all at once personal and political that examines how
the representation (and lackthereof) of black people in America has affected, and even
shaped the black identity.
of black photography, people like Deborah Willis, Clarissa Sligh, Lyle Ashton Harris,
Anthony Barboza, and Carrie Mae Weems (who this year became the first black artist
to get a retrospective at the Guggenheim). Their insights into the importance of black
people authoring their own identities are fascinating, particularly the discussions about
black female photographers, colorism, and the role gay and trans black people have
played in the making of the great American photo album.
We’re reminded, of course, that for a long time, black people were ostensibly excluded
from that metaphorical album to make room for the lily-white nuclear families who
represented “real” Americans. Indeed, there were no black artists even included in
the history books of photography. There were of course photographs of
black subjects, but these were taken by white people and, as photographer Weems
once eloquently explained, often presented black subjects as “scientific profiles” and
The images did not reflect those that Harris saw in his family photo albums as a child,
pictures taken by his grandfather (who gave him his first camera) that showed black
people with dignity, and with joy. Instead, early images of black folk in America often
sought to dehumanize the black subject. Black people were the minstrel and the
mammy, Black Sambo, watermelon-eating babies as alligator bait, and (on postcards)
deformed bodies hanging from trees as smiling white crowds looked on with the
casualness of a Sunday morning at the park.
Harris’s deeply personal and poetic narration, his battles to accept the color of his skin,
his hair, his lips, his nose, anchor the documentary. It’s not often that we see this level
of sheer honesty that, ultimately, is incredibly universal. Because this is a documentary
that seeks to spark a conversation as much as it seeks to teach and enlighten. Late in
the film, Harris excerpts an old interview of the seminal black artist and photographer,
Roy DeCarava. DeCarava explains the power of images thusly: “When you look at a
photograph, it’s happening now. It’s not then.”
And therein lies perhaps the biggest strength of “Through A Lens Darkly.” It
shows us the disturbing lynch photographs and minstrel illustrations in all their startling,
horrific detail. But it also counterbalances them with countless photos of black people by
black people, pictures from family albums all the way to the professional work of some
of the most seminal black photographers in America. There’s an understanding that
the lynch photos, the regal pictures of Booker T. Washington and Sojourner Truth, the
images of Weems staring straight into the camera in her Kitchen Table Series, all lie
on a continuum. They’re happening now. And its through these images we’re privy to
a secret history of the black photographer and the black subject, a history reaching far
back into the past and shining a light on those who paved the way for everyone, all of
us, to affirm our own identities through the images we take of ourselves and each other.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.