It is said that cameras don’t lie. Photography is similar to documentary in this way, both of them arts in which truth is often assumed. This affinity presents a problem to filmmakers trying to make a documentary about photographers. No one wants to sit through a slide show of photos, one that does nothing to alter or improve the experience of flipping through a coffee table book.
Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People gets it about half right. The film is a brief history of African-American photography from the 1840s to the present, inspired by one particular text, Deborah Willis’s Reflections in Black. Well over a century of art is tied together as contribution to a single corpus, a tome of images that will serve as the repository of aesthetic tradition for an entire community.
Yet rather than taking an academic approach, director Thomas Allen Harris tries something more personal. He punctuates these pictures with a great deal of narration, much of which includes his own family history. His brother, Lyle Ashton Harris, is one of the photographers featured. Through a Lens Darkly alternates between the artistic lives of the Harris brothers and interviews with photographers and scholars, all the while displaying the work. This strategy, underscored by music from Vernon Reid, evokes the aesthetics of the public broadcasting of the late 1980s. Its earnestness is often awkward and distracting. Harris’s narration is a perfect example, his vocal tone so serious and declamatory that every phrase sounds like the end of a sentence.
Some moments succeed, others fail. Carrie Mae Weems incisively underscores her Kitchen Table Series, a highlight of the assembled works. In a sequence examining the racist media of the post-Reconstruction period Harris approaches the scope and power of Marlon Riggs’s Ethnic Notions, though he does not push quite as deeply into their origins and meanings. The bulk of the film’s aesthetic follows suit, more of a cursory overview than a real exploration of the images and their context. It condenses well over a century of work into 90 minutes and the director rarely achieves more depth.
All of that said, he does occasionally dare to take advantage of documentary’s strengths. One of cinema’s advantages over photography is its captive audience. A film can direct your gaze and force you into images you might otherwise shy away from. Much like The Kill Team and its effective, intelligent use of the images of innocent civilian victims in Afghanistan, Harris handles the darkest periods of African-American history with real care. He marches through the brutal days of lynching with a focus on both the victims and the activists who fought to put a stop to the violence. This creates a dramatic sense of honor and justice.
Equally effective is the direct way in which he shows portraiture, all of it given the proud and privileged attention of the family album. Some of the most powerful images come from disparate places. First are the early, scientific photographs of the nude bodies of slaves commissioned in 1850 by a Harvard scientist. A horrific circumstance leads to a bizarre artistic triumph. These men and women are given the rare opportunity to look straight into the camera and challenge an audience, in a social context that would have rejected even their making eye contact with white Southerners.
The same strength in these eyes is found much later in the work of Renee Cox. Her self-portraits, playing with the costumes of superheroes and the symbols of power, assert identity in much less compromised terms. Harris confidently centers these complex but resolute portraits throughout the film. This strategy is the force that brings all of this together, surpassing the awkward and contrived “family album” narration and finding an artistic statement.
Through a Lens Darkly is now playing at Film Forum in New Y0rk City. For more dates and info, visit the First Run Features website.