The power of images — to distort, define, denigrate and celebrate — emerges with clarity and force in “Through a Lens Darkly,” a fascinating, visually stunning, emotionally devastating documentary by Thomas Allen Harris.
Subtitled “Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People,” Harris’s film was inspired by “Reflections in Black,” the definitive compendium of black photography by historian Deborah Willis. Interleaving authoritative commentary from Willis and her academic peers with his own memories of a family steeped in candid snapshots and the narrative they formed, Harris has meshed history and personal essay to create an absorbing meditation on how black photographers — amateur and professional — have both documented and helped create their community.
More powerfully, the filmmaker demonstrates how that act of self-definition has been continually subverted by way of racist caricatures, demeaning stereotypes and corrosive, wildly inaccurate depictions of black individuals and families.
That’s a lot to pack into one film. But Harris — who along with his brother, Lyle Ashton Harris, is a photographer — manages to do just that, tracing the history of black photography as far back as the medium itself (Jules Lion and James Presley Ball were early innovators in daguerreotypes portraiture) and interviewing such contemporary artists as Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson. Mining thousands of images — troubling, poetic, arresting and lyrical — Harris makes a thorough and convincing study of a tradition that has flourished despite being ignored or erased in the culture at large.
The history in “Through a Lens Darkly” is engrossing and enlightening, touching on the depiction of enslaved people in the searing portraits by Louis Agassiz, the ways in which Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass deployed their own images to further their political causes (“selling the shadow to support the substance,” in Truth’s words), and the poisonous dialectic wherein positive representations of black Americans — whether as war heroes or Reconstruction-era professionals and householders — were instantly countered by commercial images of buffoons, demons or lynching victims.
The film makes its most profound impact when Harris explains how he struggled to reconcile the shame and negativity of those distortions with the strong, joyful, loving record created by his grandfather, who was rarely seen without a camera. That struggle, Harris notes, is a collective one, and constitutes “a war of images within the American family album.”
As the film persuasively argues, what’s at stake isn’t just the fuzzy notion of “diversity” within media and visual culture, but the right to claim social space and, by extension, survival itself. “Through a Lens Darkly” threads through all of these issues with elegance and eloquence, leaving viewers with a literally transformed perspective. Harris has created not just an important revisionist history, but also a galvanizing and restorative one.
★ ★ ★
Unrated. At West End Cinema. Contains some disturbing images. 92 minutes.
Director Thomas Allen Harris will participate in a Q&A following the 7 p.m. shows Friday, Saturday and Sunday.