Thomas Allen Harris’ Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People feels more like an element of an art exhibit more than a stand-alone film. It’s unsurprising to learn that it is adapted from a book (Deborah Willis’ Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present – Willis is also a co-producer on a film), and even the film’s title recalls that of an educational essay. And given the nature of its subject I can’t help but agree that it would probably work best as a feature of an art gallery. The imagery featured within Harris’ documentary is so captivating, so educational, so powerful that I wished I had the chance to view it for longer and notice more of the fine details that the film eloquently describes. As it stands the photographs that Harris chooses to show – and there are many – frequently go by at such a pace that their impact threatens to get lost.
The narrative of African American representation in society from the 19th to the 21st is a fascinating one and telling it through the disparity between white and black photographers is unique and one ripe for examination. Likewise, the Harris has assembled a fine collection of talking heads even if his own silky-voiced narration of the film occasionally goads the audience into slumber. Given its 90-minute runtime, I wish that some more attention had been given to more recent photography. As it stands the 1980s and later aren’t represented in any great dimension, which is a shame given the number of advancements that have happened in that time (hip-hop, social change, President Obama).
Through a Lens Darkly then is more a success for its subject than its filmmaking. Harris shines much-needed light on certain hidden corners of artistic history, but at times feels all too much like a supplemental part of a larger whole. Disappointingly, the subject is so under-represented (hardly surprising, sadly) in cinema and any mainstream way that the film, despite its shortcomings, is still a must-see for anybody interested in the history of race as well as those fans of the photography medium. I just wish that, given it’s a film about art, Through a Lens Darkly had taken a bit more of an artistic method to its message. It’s a filmed essay, and luckily for them the essay is one that we need to hear about.