'Through A Lens Darkly': Black Photography Fades Up To Joy : Code Switch A documentary shares the good and bad of black history through photography.
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'Through A Lens Darkly': Black Photography Fades Up To Joy

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'Through A Lens Darkly': Black Photography Fades Up To Joy

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A new documentary looks at African-Americans as photographic subjects and image makers. "Through A Lens Darkly," airing tonight on PBS, is the work of filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris and historian Deborah Willis. NPR's Walter Ray Watson spoke to both of them and has this story.

THOMAS ALLEN HARRIS: James Vanderzee took this photograph of my grandparents on their wedding day.

WALTER RAY WATSON, BYLINE: Filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris is describing a wedding picture of Albert and Joella Johnson, his maternal grandparents holding hands around 1930. Famed Harlem photographer James Vanderzee made this portrait. Her wedding dress is simple. She's smiling. He's wistful. The chain from his pocket watch shines against his dark three-piece suit.

HARRIS: My grandfather's hair is straightened and combed back. And he has a little lock that falls over the side of his head, and so it's longish. And her hair is kind of caught in kind of like almost a pageboy, almost like a flapper style.

WATSON: Vanderzee not only captured this couple, he captured the Harlem Renaissance and its growing middle class. Harris's grandfather moved to Harlem to join this trending community of the urbane and sophisticated, the new Negro. And with time, he became Vanderzee's patron. He also made photos himself.

HARRIS: My grandfather took lots and lots of images of the family. That was his hobby.

WATSON: Harris says when he was 9, his grandfather gave him his first camera.

HARRIS: He gave many of the males in our family cameras and most of the men took photographs. In some ways, it was a rite of passage.

WATSON: Harris took photography to heart. Growing up in the Bronx and Tanzania, he became a documentary filmmaker. He narrates "Through A Lens Darkly," digging up the past, sometimes his own. He questions how blacks are represented or misrepresented.

HARRIS: The image has several babies and, you know, some are crying. Some are just looking. Some are standing. Some are sitting.

WATSON: Harris is looking at a horizontal photo from 1897. It once sold as a popular poster, and it was hung in households.

HARRIS: And just beneath the babies the words alligator bait.

WATSON: Alligator bait. Type the term into a search engine and similar images of black infants framed by those words still pop up on the Internet.

DEBORAH WILLIS: It disturbed me as an image because you once see in the 1890s beautiful black babies.

WATSON: Historian Deborah Willis is chair of photography at NYU. In more than 30 years of research, she's chosen to curate original stories and images of black people rather than those that attack and defame. She says Harris wanted explore the legacy of stereotypes in the film.

WILLIS: Working with Thomas, it became a dialogue between the two of us to have a stereotyped image to counter the images that represented black families.

WATSON: Deborah Willis's book "Reflections In Black" is the source for "Through A Lens Darkly." It shows pictures by black photographers from the 1840s to the present day. She asked Harris to make a film from her book. She would produce, and he would direct.

HARRIS: "Through A Lens Darkly" for me is very much about an exploration of the family album - the African-American family album - as well as what African-Americans look like within, if we had a national family album what we look like within that.

WATSON: Years ago, Harris made a documentary looking at gay siblings in black families.

HARRIS: Being someone who is a member of the LGBT community, I'm very much aware of visibility and invisibility.

WATSON: This film looks at exclusion, not just of African-Americans by the mainstream but gay, lesbian and transgender relatives within black families. As a girl in North Philadelphia, Deborah Willis grew up the daughter of a beautician and a policeman who also ran a grocery store. She watched women transformed in her mother, Ruth's, beauty shop. Her father, Thomas Meredith Willis, in his spare time, snapped the pictures she put into their family albums.

WILLIS: My father had a Rolleiflex and he loved photography, photographed all of our family events, vacations, Sunday meetings. He actually dropped them off at the drugstore. They would pick them up and we'd place them in the family album. Placing them in the family album helped me to create a narrative about joy that we had as a family. I had 50 first cousins.

WATSON: Deborah Willis points to another image of family, the Goodridge brothers, two professional photographers at their studio in Saginaw Valley, Mich., with their pet dog. The brothers wish Happy New Year to all, 1879.

WILLIS: We rarely see photographs of black people with their pets. They are looking directly into the camera, dapper dressed, handsome young men. But to me, it showed a life of leisure. It shows a life of prosperity. And it showed the promise of hope after emancipation.

WATSON: In the film, American life is seen through black photographers' eyes, affirmed but not elevated, everyday people along with the famous, especially activists Sojourner Truth, Marcus Garvey, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I asked Deborah Willis about one unusual image, a picture from this century, the profile of a young man's shaved head. You can't see his face, but you can't miss the Nike swoosh trademark branded into his brown skin. Conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas created that image. He's a photographer of a new generation and Deborah Willis' son.

WILLIS: As he's looking and connecting to slavery about branding, Hank is also looking in a contemporary way of how young people are branded and also stereotyped or viewed in a way based on the clothes they wear or what they desire.

WATSON: For Deborah Willis, the film is a culmination of her life's work around photography, work she says that's far from over.

WILLIS: It's just - it begins to just pull together all of my interests from beauty to politics to aesthetics.

WATSON: She hopes viewers will watch the film a few times and see black life as multifaceted through their own eyes. Walter Ray Watson, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: "Through A Lens Darkly" airs tonight on the PBS show "Independent Lens." It's NPR News.

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