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Arts & Culture

INDEPENDENT LENS: Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers And The Emergence Of A People

"Cotton Bowl, 2011" by Hank Willis Thomas.
Courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas
"Cotton Bowl, 2011" by Hank Willis Thomas.

Airs Monday, February 16, 2015 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

This acclaimed Emmy Award-winning anthology series features documentaries and a limited number of fiction films united by the creative freedom, artistic achievement and unflinching visions of their independent producers. INDEPENDENT LENS features unforgettable stories about a unique individual, community or moment in history. The series is supported by interactive companion web sites and national publicity and community engagement campaigns.

Film Review

“A family memoir, a tribute to unsung artists, and a lyrical, at times heartbroken, meditation on imagery and identity. The film is always absorbing to watch, but only once it’s over do you begin to grasp the extent of its ambitions, and just how much it has done within a packed, compact hour and a half. Overall, he is a wise and passionate guide to an inexhaustibly fascinating subject.” - A. O. Scott, The New York Times

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. 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. These images show a much more complex and nuanced view of American culture and society and its founding ideals.

Inspired by "Reflections in Black" by author Deborah Willis, the film features the works of Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Anthony Barboza, Lyle Ashton Harris, Hank Willis Thomas, Coco Fusco, Clarissa Sligh, and many others. "Through A Lens Darkly," directed by Thomas Allen Harris, premieres on INDEPENDENT LENS on Monday, February 16, 2015, as part of Black History Month programming on PBS.

The work of pioneering black photographers over the past 170 years — both men and women — is highlighted throughout the film. Their images help reclaim a sense of collective self-worth and humanity, and provide a rich history of African American contributions to the development of photography, both as an art form and a force to be reckoned with.

Capturing the spirit of transformation that led African Americans from the deprivations of slavery to the self-sufficiency of economic mobility and social stability, the film also focuses on the ways in which black photographers learned to use the medium to construct strategically useful political, aesthetic, and cultural representations of themselves and their world.

Filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris, who carries at least one camera with him at all times, has been mining material from his extended family archives for over 20 years. But making "Through A Lens Darkly" provided him with new insights. “This project would take me on a personal journey to understand why it was so important for black photographers, both professional and vernacular, to make photographs,” he said. “Through this journey I was to learn that it was a form of activism and a strategy for survival in America.”

"Through A Lens Darkly" is on Facebook.

Past episodes of INDEPENDENT LENS are available for online viewing. INDEPENDENT LENS is on Facebook, and you can follow @IndependentLens on Twitter.

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