Through a Lens Darkly bears such a striking resemblance to Tongues Untied that one can’t help but assume director Thomas Allen Harris set out to model his documentary about black photographers on Marlon Riggs’s essential late-’80s masterwork. But whereas Tongues Untied furiously maintains a sense of performance art-as-activism by refusing to settle down and speak its outrage in any direct, conventional manner, Through a Lens Darkly consistently takes agency away from the art itself with a litany of talking heads. This includes Harris’s own, mostly ponderous voiceover that’s too inclined to wield clumsy metaphors, such as “in the album of humanity, will we find a vision to come together, to see ourselves as one?” to have convincing effects. These rhetorical gestures do little but muddle the urgency inherent to the work on display in the film and offers a roundabout presentation of the profound historicizing of various photographers’ attempts to “change the way people think of the black subject vis-à-vis the photograph.”
More standard essay film than associative montage, Through a Lens Darkly relies on the testimony and insights of black photographers in order to assemble an argument about “a war of images within the American family album.” That includes numerous advertisements and products from the early 20th century with appalling racial caricatures and stereotypes, but also archival excavations of deceased relatives, looking and smiling at the camera. The juxtaposition humanizes the generational anguish, as several daguerreotype collectors explain their relationship with the early work, while contextualizing black photographers working in Cincinnati, OH as early as the mid-19th century. The photographs themselves are astounding for historical and artistic reasons, especially since the gaze is returned by the photographed subjects, which would have been a direct act of defiance for any photograph taken pre-1865. These are excellent sequences, including brief discussions of Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, whose photographs are directly juxtaposed with contemporary work that has sought, in various fashions, to acknowledge a debt to their forbearers.
Yet Harris struggles to precisely articulate the intent of his documentary, which vacillates between insular digressions about prominent black figures within the contemporary artistic milieu, broader info-doc orientations, and poetic acts of autonomous, personal history, no better epitomized than Harris’s delving into his own family history in part of the film’s final third. While the sub-topics shift, the film’s form remains on too bland a plane, with stock, old-timey string music played over 19th-century photographs, replete with Ken Burns effects, while discussions of more recent matters features ominous tones for photographs from Hurricane Katrina and quieter, jazzier music for more hopeful turns toward the act of photography. It’s all a bit too on the nose and grows tiresome as Harris’s only seeming mode of articulation.
A late segment on Deborah Willis, however, showcases the film’s historical urgency, while extolling the work being done to eliminate singular, white-dominant conceptions of beauty, particularly how an individual subject can’t escape a sense of themselves as the universal. In addition, when photographer Jamal Shabazz explains his struggles by saying “the gun was more readily available than the camera,” Through a Lens Darkly is at its strongest in eliding the more trite inclinations driving Harris’s personal digressions, voiceover, and largely cloying sense of dramatic aesthetics.