Towards the end of Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, a must-see documentary by Thomas Allen Harris that poetically blends history with memoir, photographer Roy DeCarava is quoted: “When you look at a photograph, it’s happening now. It’s not then.”
This quote is what is at the heart of the project, one inspired by Deborah Willis’ seminal work, Reflections in Black (2000). Ten years in the making, the documentary saw its New England premiere at the Institute of Contemporary Art earlier this month, and continues screenings through the 28.
Through A Lens Darkly acts partly as a history lesson, teaching about and instructing on the tradition of black photographers and their subjects, from slave daguerreotype portraiture to Frederick Douglass’s and Sojourner Truth’s carefully controlled public images, from lynching photos adorning postcards to contemporary works by Renee Cox, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Anthony Barboza, Hank Willis Thomas, Coco Fusco, and Clarissa Sligh. But it also reveals how black narratives have been hidden from view, but have never absent.
“It was really important for me to understand that history is something that happened then, but that’s not to say that we can’t impact history in the present,” says Harris on the phone from the ICA. “It’s not like history is lost, and that’s really amazing for the last 20 or 30 years in terms of cultural studies work that’s happening in colleges, and in terms of the artists. It’s about bringing people who have been forgotten up … Then all of a sudden, things shift and we’re able to see that person in focus, and that leads to more focus and emerging information. Then that leads to other kinds of connections, and then before you know it, the history that we knew is now a much different type of history.”
In Through A Lens Darkly, Harris poignantly explores the simultaneous past, present, future of art, politics, and the personal. We see that the past can’t be changed, but how we remember it and teach it is controlled by those images we scour and share today, whether they be dug up in an archive or snapped on your cell phone camera.