A Photo Featured in the Film
Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People
Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People – directed and narrated by the Afro-American photographer and filmaker Thomas Allen Harris, based on a screen play written in collaboration with scholar/playwright Paul Carter Harrison and Don Perry – is a splendid example of the power of the documentary film as a teaching tool. As a method of teaching history to a mass audience it is unequalled, notwithstanding the arguements of some who favor the feature film. Although it is no less a work of art than any feature film, it does not take license with the facts in the way a creative work of fiction does.
On the contrary, this film handles historical facts with exquisite care, employing narrators who are outstanding historians such as Dr. Nell Painter, Professor Emeritus of History at Princeton, and Dr. Robin G. Kelly, a Professor of History at Columbia, among others. Some of the commentators, like Dr. Dawson and Dr. Deborah Willis are photographers as well as scholars.
Dr. Willis, an award winning photographer and scholar who heads the photography program at NYU, is a co-producer and guiding light behind this project, which is based on her 2002 book Reflections in Black. The many black photographers who appear in the film constantly sing her praises like a Buddhist chant, and they assure us that without her efforts as scholar and champion of black photographers their work would be unknown and many of them would be doing something else.
The resulting film is a visually beautiful, intellectually stimulating, spiritually moving documentary that manages to capsulize our history through the images of Afro-American photographers and the stories of how they came to make these poignant portraits of Afro-American life. It was a wonderful revelation! It is no exaggeration to claim that if I learned important things about our history from this film after having studied the history of Black Americans for over half a century, and taught that history in the first degree granting Black Studies in the world, the WEB Dubois Department at the University Of Massachusetts at Amherst – see Dr. DuBois: Then and Now on this blog – it is a certainty that anyone else watching the film will be mightily instructed about the black experience in the USA.
The film places the rise of Afro-American photographers within the context of their times, which is to say the story is told from a historical perspective. And that accounts for its importance. Among the amazing things we learn is that the art and science of photography – which would change the world and redefine the role of painters – was invented in Paris in 1839, and introduced into the USA by an Afro-American in New Orleans, who had the first known photographic studio in America. At the time photographic images were made through a method called daguerreotypes, which differed from the film that would later become the preferred medium because it is a simpler more efficient method.
Another thing we learn is that the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass considered photographers to be a vital force in the struggle for the full freedom and dignity of Afro-Americans – and thus he became one of the most photographed men in 19th century America. Douglass, whose prolific and well crafted prose offers seemingly endless quotes on the vicissitudes of life – biographer Dr. Benjamin Quarles went through those voluminous writings with a fine tooth comb and said “I couldn’t find a bad line” – argued that in their quest to demonstrate their superiority whites always put forth the most attractive images of themselves…and so should black folks.
The Best Dressed Man in America?
We have but to look at the photographs of Douglass to see that he practiced what he preached. Standing 6’ 4” and weighing 250 pounds, Douglass was the size of a pro-football linebacker. With a well-muscled frame forged over his anvil during his tenure as a blacksmith in his youth, and a full curly Afro coif, Frederick Douglass was one of the handsomest men in America. And the brother ragged his ass off; he was always “clean as the board of health” as we used to say back in the day. Check out the photograph above.
Watching this film I learned where the tradition of Black male elegance in America originated; a tradition I inherited from the men in my family, my mother’s exquisite taste, other men in the community who were sharp dressers or “sports” and famous entertainers and athletes like Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Mile Davis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, fashion plates all. These were the men who set the standard of sartorial elegance for all males in America.
However I learned from viewing this film that the love of elegance among earlier generations of black men was no accident;it was a deliberate attempt to counteract the slave/Sambo image that white America projected of us in an unending campaign of psychological warfare to convince us that we were inferior to whites. Alas, this conciousness has been lost on young black males who ushered in the fashion disaster of the Hip Hop era.
The film makes clear, in a way that I have never seen the point made, that all of the early champions of black America, those stalwart soldiers in the fight to uplift the race, understood the power of photography to assist them in their struggle. In the 19th century, when the majority of Afro-Americans were slaves, both black male and female leaders understood this; but they also understood something else: elegance must be accompanied by intelligence.
Hence Frederick Douglass risked death in order to learn to read, and once he escaped slavery he devoured books like a piranha in a gold fish pond. And he systematically mastered the art of public speaking in order to better plead the case of America’s slaves, from whose ranks he arose. Blessed with a sonorous bass/baritone voice – ala James Earl Jones and Paul Robeson – Douglass was the most spellbinding orator of his time, a golden age in American oratory.
However the Consciousness of the power of photography was no less apparent to Black women. Historian Nell Painter, who wrote the definitive biography of the great abolitionist Sojourner Truth, who also rose up from slavery albeit in New York not the south, discusses the fact that Sojourner also understood the power of photography to define a people and was therefore very careful about the image she projected. Sojourner was especially careful to project an image of strength, dignity and propriety. Having been a slave, and as Dr. Painter reveals in her biography, the sexual plaything of both her master and mistress, it is easy to see why a dignified public image was of great importance to her. Thus we see that the most widely circulated image of her embodies these values.
A Portrait of Rectitude and Strength
In the aftermath of slavery, which was ended only after a bloody Civil war that tore the nation apart, Afro-Americans experienced a brief period when they were permitted to participate in the American democratic process as voting citizens. However the die-hard racists in the south immediately began a covert struggle to take away the vote and severely limit the new found Freedom of Afro-Americans. A major part of their strategy was to prove that Afro-Americans were sub-human and therefore unfit to live as free citizens in American society.
The film brilliantly shows how one of the most effective strategies in this reactionary program was to obliterate the heroic images of black men who fought for and won their freedom by defeating the southern slave masters as soldiers in the Union army. In their place they substituted racist images, which were already well established in the blackface minstrel show where white men “blacked up” to perform degrading parodies of black life and character.
Armed Black Liberators
A Dangerous Image White Supremacists
Typical Images of Afro-Americans at turn of 20th Century
These images gave support to white racist ideology
All black people were Fair Game
Even Black Children
While black men were the main target of racist defamation, black women and children were also considered fair game. The film shows how the proliferation of these images reached its apogee in the wildly popular D.W. Griffith movie “The Birth of a Nation.” This movie falsified the role of black legislators during the Reconstruction period in the South following the Civil War – a monstrous lie that Dr. WEB DuBois corrected in his magesterial study Black Reconstruction a couple of decades later – glorified the Ku Klux Klan and justified the lynching of black men at a time when such public crucifixions were occurring at the rate of one every two and a half days.
In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that D.W. Griffith used the cinema to promote mass murder against the Afro-American minority group here in America three deacades before Lenni Feifensthal produced Triumph of the Will, a film that glorified Hitler and the Nazi’s , inciting the Holocaust against European Jews. I would not be surprised if she learned her tecnique from Griffith, just as Hitler copied his master race theories from the racist tome “The Passing of the Great Race,” published in 1917 by the American Eugenicist Madison Grant, who served as President of the New York Zoological Society.
This is not a matter of conjecture, as historian have uncovered a letter from Hitler in the papers of Grant, in which Der Fuhrer exclaimed: “Your book is my Bible!” One need onlr read the racist theories in Mein Kempt and compare them to the arguments in The Passing of the Great Race to see the origins Hitlers Master Race pseudoscience. Had the writers of this otherwise excellent script explored this bit of America’s racial history it would have greatly strenghtened the narrative. The violent racist reactions to The Birth of a Natiom prompted Booker T. Washington to launch a photography project to counteract it. As the founder of Tuskegee Institute, a college in the “Black Belt” of rural Alabama, and the most powerful black man in America, Washington was in a unique position to launch this effort.
Washington was famous for his successful cultivation of powerful white industrialists, and the president of the Kodak camera company was on his Board of Directors. The Kodak Company provided Tuskegee with a state of the art photography lab, and Washington hired a master black photographer to head it. The result was a treasure trove of elegant images of black Americans that provided a powerful counterstatement to the racist images emanating from white America, many of which accompanied advertisements for products produced by major corporations. Like Frederick Douglass, Washington used the camera lens to carefully construct his own image. Hence we see him depicted in photographs as a thoughtful man of dignity and power.
The “Wizard” of Tuskegee
A Man of Knowledge and Power
The Master of Tuskegee
Looking Heroic atop his Stallion
Dr. George Washington Carver
World Renowned Tuskegee Scientist
Booker T and Teddy Roosevelt
From slave shack to the White House
Booker T. Washington, was one of the great geniuses in the art of what has become known as “public relations” and he used the photograph to maximum advantage, as the pictures above aptly demonstrate. They were quite instrumental in his becoming one of the best known men of his time. Although he and the leading intellectual of black America, the Harvard and Berlin educated WEB DuBois had many ideological differences, they both agreed on the importance of photography in advancing the race.
Hence Dubois also understood the importance of the image he projected, and every picture we see of him he was dressed to the nines, with his trademark cane, spats, vest, felt or straw hat, and exquisitely trimmed Van Dyke beard. The two most influential leaders of Black America at the turn of the 20th century held such faith in the power of photography to shape the perception of their people by the wider world that both of them mounted a photographic exhibit at the Paris Exposition of 1900 showing the amazing progress of Afro-American in the 35 years since the end of slavery in the US.
A Young Dr. DuBois in Paris
Representin at the Exposition in 1900
The Photographs in the American Negro exhibition concentrated on the well to do in their elegant attire and beautiful homes. It also showed black businesses and professionals – the class of successful strivers that three years later Dr. DuBois would call the “Talented Tenth,” in his classic work The Souls of Black Folk. It was impressive enough to win a prize. The film shows how the tradition of employing photography to counter the racist imagery of white America carried over into the twentieth century as black photographers developed all over the country, and it tells us to take the time to search through our family albums to observe this rich visual record of our people.
The producers select photographs by known and unknown photographers and the narrator instructs us to examine their poses, which is visual evidence of what they thought of themselves. What we see is not a defeated people, but a people filled with pride and self-confidence, without the slightest doubt that they were lookin good. It is evidence that Albert Murray, not Malcolm X was right; Malcolm preached that the white man had convinced us to hate ourselves. Mr. Murray said that was nonsense in his book “The Omni-Americans;” he said that all one need do is to look at the elegance with which we decorated ourselves and our unequalled grace on the dance floor to see that we recognized our beauty despite the “fakelore of white supremacy.” The evidence for his argument is in these photographs.
During the 2oth century some black photographers moved to the front ranks of American photographers and became artist. First among these, the Dean of black American photographers, was James Van der Zee. Living and workng in Harlem during the 1920’s he witnessed the emergence of the “New Negro” and the Harlem Renissance” and he captured it as no other visual artist managed to do. In fact he was inspired by what was happening around him and his work has inspired generations of black photographers ever since. We hear their testimony in the film.
In Van der Zee’s photos we see the full range of Afro-American life in the nation’s largest and most important city; the strenght and dignity of Afro-American orginazations and leaders, as well as the elegance and beauty of our style – especially of Afro-American women. The portraits that Ellington – a trained visual artist – would later paint in compositions like “Satin Doll,” “Black and Tan Fantasy,” and “Black Brown and Biege Suite” was first captured through the lens of James Van der Zee.
An Elegant Harlem Lady
A Well Appointed Harlem Home
Stylish Harlem Couple in Racoon Coats
While Duke Ellington began his artistic career as a visual artist and metamorphosed into a great musician, James Van der Zee began as a violinist and evolved into a great photographer. This accounts for the visual nature of Ellington’s music and the lyrical nature of Van der Zee’s photographs. Like the social and political leaders of the race, Van der Zee was well aware of the value of his work as a photographer to the elevation of the race. He once remarked that his major inspiration for becoming a photographer was to preserve the elegance and beauty of the black people he saw all around him for future generations to see. One has only to peruse his ouevre to witness the fruition of his vision. He took great care to record the rituals and rhythms of Afro-American life during a great cultural flowering when brilliant, talented black people from all over the world gathered in Harlem. Every element of Afro-American society was influenced by the zietgiest of the “New Negro.”
Portraits of the Black Family
Bride, Groom and Wedding Party
A Pampered Harlem Child
Nationalist Leader Marcus Garvey on Parade
Garvey Commissioned Van der Zee to Photograph his movement
While Duke Ellington began his artistic career as a visual artist and metamorphosed into a great musician, James Van der Zee began as a violinist and evolved into a great photographer. This accounts for the visual nature of Ellington’s music and the lyrical nature of Van der Zee’s photographs. A Printer by trade, Marcus Garvey, leader of one of the greatest mass organizations in US history – The Universal Negro Improvement Association – was fully aware as Frederick Douglass and other leaders before him of the power of a good photograph. Hence he hired the best to make them.
Of the contemporary photographers who pay tribute to James Van der Zee in the film and acknowledge is Anthony Barboza, whom some critics of photography consider to the heir to Vanderzee’s legacy as the preeminent Afro-American photographer and a great American original, a grandmaster of the art. In the film Barboza talks about how he sought Van der Zee out as a young man, when the old master was already in his eighties and studied with him and displays a photograph of them together. Barboza’s ouevre is wide ranging in it’s concerns and he has won many awards for his photography.
Anthony Barboza’s “Black Dreams”
A work of exquisite beauty and imagination
This film celebrates so many important photographers it is beyond the scope of this review to comment on them all. However among twentieth century masters Gordon Parks and Roy Decavara deserve mention. The personal story and artistic influence of Gordon Parks – a twentieth century version of the Renissiance Man – is the stuff of legend, which is why there is a major prize presented in his name. Although his storied career included much coveted and glamourous assignments like photographing fashion shows in Paris for a prestiegeous national magazine, Parks often said that the camera was his choice of weapon in the struggle for justice and human dignity. His images of the poverty stricken and oppressed move the conscience of people around the world.
Sometimes the images exposed the ironies of injustices by the way he juxtaposed symbols, a classic example of this is his photograph “American Gothic” which was featured in this film. A parody of the famous 1930 painting by Grant Wood, a European educated American Artist, Parks substituted a real black cleaning woman in a Washington office building in place of the dour white couple – Grant’s sister and her dentist – standing in front of a typical wooden house in Iowa with European gothic style windows. By switching the images Park’s symbolism transformed a rather pedestrian painting into a powerful statement about race, gender and class in the world’s most powerful nation.
Grant Wood’s American Gothic
Gordon Parks’ American Gothic
The Iconoclastic Image as Powerful Social Commentary
Of all the photographers and works discussed in this documentary, none was more roundly praised as a personal influence than Roy Decavara’s book of photos The Sweet Fly Paper of Life. A khalidescopic view of Afro-American life in Harlem, with a text by Langston Hughes, Harlem’s Poet Laurate, it was unlike anything publicly available in one volume. Born and raised in this uptown Manhattan village by a single mother, Decavara began his artistic career as a clasically trained painter. However while taking photographs to use as models for making prints he fell in love with photography and became a master of the art. However his decision to abandon painting was not totally an asthetic one, it was also prompted by the blatant racism of the world of “fine art.” He is quoted in his New York Times Obituary as remarking: “A black painter, to be an artist, had to join the white world or not function — had to accept the values of white culture.”
Decavara was the first black photographer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in his 1952 application he wrote: “I do not want a documentary or sociological statement,” instead he sought to produce “a creative expression, the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which I believe only a Negro photographer can interpret.” This was bold talk to a cluless group of white paternalists and cultural chauvanists who controlled the purse strings he need to finance his project. Yet he won them over. In 1982, he clarified his mission succinctly in a New York Times interview: “One of the things that got to me, was that I felt that black people were not being portrayed in a serious and in an artistic way.”
By the time Decavara was painting his portraits of Harlem life in the 1950’s, long after the “Renissance” had receded into history, Harlem was a very different community. And his photographs reflect it. Furthermore, his was not a mission of social uplift that had inspired Van der Zee and other early photographers. Perhaps the Chief Curator of Photography at New York’s world renowned Museum of Modern Art, Peter Galassi, summed up the meaning of Decavara’s achievement. After organizing a retrospective show of Decavara’s ouevre, compiled over 60 years, Galassi, said of his work: ” “He was looking at everyday life in Harlem from the inside, not as a sociological or political vehicle. No photographer black or white before him had really shown ordinary domestic life so perceptively and tenderly, so persuasively.”
Roy Decavara’s Sweet Fly Paper of Life
One of the contemporary photographers who enthusiastically tell us that the work of Roy Decavara was was a great inspiration to him is Frank Stewart, the official photographer for Jazz at Lincoln Center, and for my money the finest photographer of Jazz musicians in the world. Decavara’s photographs of Jazz musicians were much celebrated, thus one could view Frank Stewart’s work is the extension of that tradition….one of Decavara’s artistic spawn. The photograph below is case in point.
Deminuendo in Blue
Diane Reeves and the Boys
Of all the issues raised in this film, none were more compelling than the discussions of gender and sexual orientation. After all, this documentary is about how black subjects are presented in photographic imagery; thus it should surprise no one that these issues should arise. The discussion of gender addressed not only the representation of black female beauty in relation to European standards and taste, but the absence of representations of gay Afro-Americans.
The most enlightening revelation regarding the depiction of gay subjects was the discussion of how black family albums have been carefully censored to omit gay members. This was especially true of out members such as cross dressers, and some of these censored pictures are revealed in the film. It was clear that the narrator is gay, like his mentor Marlon Riggs -who made the seminal film on black gay life “Tongues Untied” – and thus he was reclaiming these forgotten family members as a validation of his own identity and legacy.
There was much discussion of the role of black women photographers, who have been even more invisible than black men. This discussion was facilitated by the critical role of Deborah Willis in the production of this film. Her comments along with those of Jeanie Moutoussamy Ashe and especially Carrie Mae Weems raised questions about their struggle to find black female role models in the field of photography when they started out, and the challenge of dealing with the dominance of white standards of femininity and beauty.
One can see this concern clearly displayed in the photographic images of Carrie Mae Weems, a versatile artist who works in several mediums including audio, fabric, video installations and digital imagery. She is a well-trained artist who studied at the California Institute of the Arts, U Cal San Diego and the University of California at Berkley. Her views on representations of the black image in visual arts are among the most interesting in the film. She defines her mission as an artist thusly: “My responsibility as an artist is to work, to sing for my supper, to make art, beautiful and powerful, that adds and reveals, to beautify the mess of a messy world.”
Ms. Weems has won many honors, including a MacArthur “Genius” Award and has been artist-in-residence or visiting professor at Harvard and Wellesley among others. And she often appears as a subject in her own photographs, often posing before mirrors with no evidence of a camera, a marvelous illusion that confounds the viewer. The two images below, Not Monet’s Type and The Healer are compelling examples.
“Not Monet’s Type”
The words and image speaks volumes
From the Series “Dreaming in Cuba”
Mother and Daughter
Passing on the ancient ritual of self decoration
All Americans should see this brilliant and highly important film for themselves, especially black people. Indeed the black photographers who commented in this documentary repeatedly wondered out loud about how differently many Afro-Americans would view themselves if they had been nurtured on the images provided by black photographers, rather than the degrading images they saw. Indeed, at the opening of this film the great Afro-American novelist and essayist James Baldwin – a highly intelligent, deeply sensitive and insightful man – is heard remarking about how every black child in America in his time constantly searched for images of themselves in which they could take pride. It was an excellent preface for the film, because it succinctly defined the issue that black photographers addressed.
Alas, the white critics who dominate the pages of the major journals of opinion, such as that snide pompous airhead Dennis Harvey, a San Francisco based critic who wrote a simple-minded review for Variety, may well miss this point. Among the pearls of wisdom this prissy wag offers up in his banal mutterings about this masterpiece is the following bit of pompous, embarrassingly ignorant, prattle: “Activist leaders like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois (who curated an exhibit of photographed African-American life at a Parisian World’s Fair) stressed the importance of a dignified personal presentation, even if that meant copying the demeanor and dress of the white bourgeoisie.”
It is hard to conjure a more asinine statement from someone who is regarded as a serious commentator on cultural affairs. They dressed in the high fashion of the times, for the very good reasons that I have discussed earlier. In his snide know-it-all hip white boy condescension he exposes the fact that he was not really paying attention to the narration, furthermore he understands so little about the imperatives of historical place – and even less about the history of the period – he engages in what historians call “presentism.”
One wonders how Harvey thought they should have dressed; perhaps like Hip Hop heads, or lefty San Francisco bohemian frumps like him? This is a man who would greatly benefit from Mark Twain’s admonition: Tis far better to be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt! Despite the silly and superficial comments of culturally deprived white critic like Harvey, this film, by and measure, is a tour de force and a rare priceless cultural treasure. It is no surprise that it won the African Movie Academy Award for Best Diaspora Documentary….Bravo!
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
September, 17 2014