Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Digital/streaming/DVDebut: Thomas Allen Harris' look at the history of black photographers and photography in THROUGH A LENS DARKLY

Based upon and inspired by histor-ian/photographer Deborah Willis' book, Reflections in Black, this new documentary by Thomas Allen Harris is a not-to-be-missed exploration of black photography and photographers, from as far back as the beginning of the medium up until pretty much our modern times. The trip unveils a wealth of photos, most of which I can near guarantee you won't have seen, as well as interviews with more than 50 African-American photog-raphers and/or historians whose ongoing narration is informative, often surprising and sometimes wonderfully poetic.

As Ms Willis informs us early on, "It's important for not only the African-American audience, but for the larger audience, to under-stand what it meant to have a political history, an artistic history, and a social history of photog-raphy."
Mr. Harris, shown above with one of those photographs, has compiled quite a rich lode of photography and then put it all together into a fascinating mix. There is not one uninteresting minute in all of the 93 on display -- including the "branded" Nike insignias that appear on the body of one black man and seem to hark back to the slave brandings on the body of another, maybe two hundred years previous.

There is little need for Harris or his movie to strike any heavy-duty political pose, for nearly everything in it -- as is nearly everything in the history of blacks in America -- is already plenty political. Instead Harris and his various interviewees and narrators simply show and tell and let the chips fall where they may. We see everything from early photos of a slave family, in which each member is nude and full frontal, to Sojourner Truth and her photos, from which she actually earned a living, to the more modern work of Renee Cox, shown on poster, top, and below.

We view photos of various lynchings, in which the white onlookers appear to be at some sort of celebration -- smiling and happy and having a wonderful time -- and see the black soldiers who fought for the U.S. from the Civil War through World War II. We also watch image after image of the ways in which the white world pictured blacks move before us. Oh-oh: Here come the black gays and lesbians, too, and finally even feminism via important black women photographers.

THROUGH A LENS DARKLY: BLACK PHOTOGRAPHERS AND THE EMERGENCE OF A PEOPLE is eye-opening is so many ways -- from its explanation of what passing-for-white meant to many blacks in earlier times (and what is a photo of J. Edgar Hoover doing here, I wonder? Was he perhaps a mixed-race cross-dresser?) to what the wonderful work of photographers like Gordon Parks and Roy De Carava meant to their contemporaries, as well as to us now.

Among the shockers are the photos of Emmett Till, alive and then dead, but there is plenty of beauty on display to compensate (but not erase) the horror of American racism. We even get a short look at some smart commercial photography along the way, and this charming thought from one of our more recent photographers, as his morning arrives, "If I just wake up fast enough, I can photograph my dream!"

See this wonderful documentary, a "must" for anyone interested in photography or back history. From First Run Features and totaling 93 minutes in length, after a nice theatrical run last year, it can now be seen, beginning yesterday, February 2, as an iTunes exclusive; then on DVD come February 10; premiering February 16 on PBS Independent Lens, and arriving via Netflix on February 17. 

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