REVIEW: Through a Lens Darkly

4 12 2014

Through a Lens DarklyPhotography may have a verisimilitude afforded to few other art forms, but that does not mean they always present reality.  Pictures can distort and lie just as well as a more malleable medium.  In fact, it can even do so in a more pernicious manner since it can masquerade as the truth more easily.  As famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass once stated, “Negroes can never have a impartial portrait at the hands of white artists.”

Thomas Allen Harris’ impactful and important documentary “Through a Lens Darkly” chronicles a crucial cultural history of black photography.  Just as images have the power to liberate, they also have the ability to subjugate.  The latter was the case for the first century of photography and even beyond as white photographers used their control over imagery to perpetuate a steady stream of sordid stereotypes.

Harris details not just the photography itself but also the impact it had on a people.  A legacy of being the object of cultural representations rather than its subject took its toll, and only recently has a generation arisen to reverse and triumph over that reprehensible history.  “Through a Lens Darkly” is at its best, though, when Harris casts his gaze backwards in time; the artists simply do not receive the time necessary to develop as personalities.

Harris also tries to merge his own story into the narrative to personalize and humanize the facts, yet it just winds up being clutter. The history speaks for itself and does not require a side dish to make it feel like a full meal.  His “Through a Lens Darkly” is the kind of film every high school history class wishes their teacher would show because it is fascinatingly informative and, unfortunately, still extremely relevant.  B2halfstars

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