Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People

Through a Lens Darkly

  • BY Thomas Allen Harris | IN Arts & Culture
    Premiered February 16, 2015

About the Film

The first documentary to explore the role of photography in shaping the identity, aspirations, and social emergence of African Americans from slavery to the present, Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People probes the recesses of American history through images that have been suppressed, forgotten, and lost. MORE

Bringing to light the hidden and unknown photos shot by both professional and vernacular African American photographers, the film opens a window into the lives of black families, whose experiences and perspectives are often missing from the traditional historical canon. African Americans historically embraced the medium as a way to subvert popular stereotypes as far back as the Civil War era, with Frederick Douglass photographed in a suit and black soldiers posing proudly in their uniforms. These images show a much more complex and nuanced view of American culture and its founding ideals.

Inspired by the book Reflections in Black by photo historian Deborah Willis, the film features the works of esteemed photographic artists Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Anthony Barboza, Hank Willis Thomas, Coco Fusco, Clarissa Sligh, James Van Der Zee, Gordon Parks, and many others.

The Filmmaker

Thomas Allen Harris, Director/Co-Producer

Headshot of Through a Lens Darkly filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris.Thomas Allen Harris is the founder and president of Chimpanzee Productions, a company dedicated to producing unique audiovisual experiences that illuminate the human condition and the search for identity, family, and spirituality. Chimpanzee’s innovative and award-winning performance-based documentary films — VINTAGE - Families of Value, E Minha Cara/That’s My Face, and Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela — have received critical acclaim at international film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Toronto, FESPACO, Outfest, Flaherty, and Cape Town, and have been broadcast on PBS, the Sundance Channel, ARTE, as well as CBC, Swedish Broadcasting Network, and New Zealand Television. His videos and installations have been featured at prestigious museums and galleries including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Biennial, the Corcoran Gallery, Reina Sophia, and the London Institute of the Arts. Harris has received numerous fellowships and awards including a United States Artist Fellowship, Guggenheim Fellowship, Rockefeller Fellowship, as well as CPB/PBS and Sundance Directors Fellowships. A graduate of Harvard College, Harris lectures widely on the use of media as a tool for social change. LESS

Film Credits

A Film by
Thomas Allen Harris

Inspired by the Book
Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present, by Deborah Willis

Director, Producer, Writer
Thomas Allen Harris

Deborah Willis
Ann Bennett
Don Perry

Executive Producers
Kimberly Steward
John Singleton

Don Perry
Paul Carter Harrison

K.A. Miille
Matthew Cohn

Vernon Reid

Additional Music and Opening Theme Composed and Performed by
Miles Jay

Director of Photography
Martina Radwan

Associate Producers
Sabrina Hawkins
Sheila Maniar

Sound Recordists
J.T. Takagi
Juan Rodríguez

Sound Designer and Mixer
Kent Brown

Luis Colon

Jeremy Conley
Jonathan Weaver
Drew Eichman

Production Counsel
Woo Jung Cho, PLLC

Animation/Special Effects
Dan Callahan

On-line Editor and Colorist
Jon Fordham

Post-Production Services Provided by
Skywalker Sound

Editing Facility Provided by
Tribeca All Access

Still Photographers
Régine Romain
Russell Frederick
Jennifer Pritheeva Samuel
Thomas Sayers Ellis
Donald Andrew Agarrat
Sonia Louise Davis
Petrushka Bazin Larsen
Victor Lloyd

Assistant Researchers
Chloe Kurabi
Sonia Louise Davis
Dr. Mary Marshall
Martha Mae Jones
Alexander Johns

Elizabeth Skinner
Jessica Eubanks

Rights and Clearances Counsel
Lisa A. Callif

David G. Berger
Ron K. Brown
Shiree Dyson
Cheryl Finley
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Camara Dia Holloway
Kellie Jones
Nathan Nathanson
Ann Shumard
Greg Tate
Mel Watkins
Anne Wilkes Tucker
Leslie Willis-Lowry
Kerrie Cotten Williams
Mary Yearwood

Archival Courtesy of:
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library
Billy “Fundi” Abernathy
African American Museum in Philadelphia
Alabama Department of Archives and History
Amistad Research Center, Tulane University
Anthony Barboza
Art Resource
Associated Press
Austin History Center
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
Bayerisches Nationalmuseum
Carnegie Museum of Art, Charles "Teenie" Harris Collection
Michael Chambers
Chester County Historical Society
Cincinnati Museum Center
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture
Gift of Charles Schwartz and Shawn Wilson
Corbis Photos
Emory University, Manuscript and Rare Book Library
Ernest Withers, Panopticon Collection
Gertrude Erwin
Virginia Fair
Delphine Fawundu-Buford
Mikki Ferrell
George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film
Georgia Department of Archives and History
Getty Images
Ted Gray
Greg French Collection
Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University
Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries
Selma Heraldo
Herman B Wells Library, Indiana University, Bloomington
Historic New Orleans Collection
International Center of Photography
Institute for Arts & Media, College of Arts, California State University Northridge
ITN Source/Fox Movietone
Johnson Publications
Albert S. Johnson, Jr.
Phillip Richard Johnson, Jr.
Leonard Davis Collection
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Life Magazine
John Clark Mayden
Melvin J. Zahnow Library Archives and Special Collections, Saginaw Valley State University
Mississippi Department of Archives and History
Montana Historical Society
Moorland-Spingarn Research Center
Museum of African American History, Smithsonian Institution
National Center for Civil and Human Rights
National Archives and Records Administration
Nebraska State Historical Society
New York Public Library
Kambui Olujimi
Onondaga Historical Association
Pacifica Foundation Radio
Larry Patterson
Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University
Dawit Petros
Photofest, Inc.
Pitts Rivers Museum, Oxford University
PH Polk Estate
The Gordon Parks Foundation
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, NYPL
Accra Shepp
Beuford Smith
Jamyl Smith
Special Collections Library, Vassar College
Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst
State Archives of Florida
Streamline Films
T3 Media
The Granger Collection
The J. Paul Getty Museum
The Paul R. Jones Collection of American Art at The University of Alabama
Third Streaming
The Tuskegee University Archives, Tuskegee University
University of Delaware
Valentine Richmond History Center
Vincent Voice Library, Michigan State University
Rev. Malika Lee Whitney
Jason Wright
Young Robertson Collection

Photos by Eslanda Cardozo Goode Robeson, Winifred Hall Allen, Vera Jackson, Louise E. Jefferson, Arthur C. Teal, and Joyce R. Wilson: Courtesy of “Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers” Collection of Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe

Fiscal Sponsors
Third World Newsreel
New York Foundation for the Arts
Bay Area Video Coalition

Executive Producer for NBPC
Jacquie Jones

Executive Producer for ITVS
Sally Jo Fifer

Funding Provided by
Ford Foundation
Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts
Reginald Van Lee
National Endowment for the Arts
Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program
New York State Council on the Arts
William and Carol Sutton Lewis
Clarence Otis, Jr. and Jacqueline Bradley
Kenneth and Kathryn Chenault
National Endowment for the Humanities
And others. A complete list is available from PBS.

Through a Lens Darkly is a co-production of Through a Lens Darkly, LLC and the Independent Television Service (ITVS), produced in association with the National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC), with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

This film was produced by Through a Lens Darkly, LLC, which is solely responsible for its content.

© 2014 Through a Lens Darkly, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

What role has photography played in telling the story of your own family? How have your own views on race been shaped by images you’ve been exposed to over the years? Have things improved in the way African Americans are portrayed and captured in photography?


  • 2015 NAACP Image Awards
    Outstanding Documentary (Film)
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What role has photography played in telling the story of your own family? How have your own views on race been shaped by images you’ve been exposed to over the years? Have things improved in the way African Americans are portrayed and captured in photography?