Thomas Allen Harris’s new documentary Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People is “a family memoir, a tribute to unsung artists and a lyrical, at times heartbroken, meditation on imagery and identity,” according to the New York Times.
“It’s a film dense with both information and purpose,” says LA Weekly. Harris’s goals, says LA Weekly, are to present “the photographic documentation of black life in America that was produced by black Americans; to use historical photos of black life to provide counter-narratives to prevailing bigoted notions; to mine history to help figure out how we might all break the cycles of inequity, inequality and suffering.”
Through a Lens Darkly highlights photographers and images from before the Civil War to the contemporary era of social media. Says the New York Times, the film “takes on a grim timeliness when you think about the role that photographs—shared and sometimes counterfeited on the Internet and social media—played in the aftermaths of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo., and Trayvon Martin’s killing in Florida in 2012.”
One of the artists featured in the film is Florestine Perrault Collins (1895–1988), who learned photographic techniques while passing for white in New Orleans. She opened her first studio in her home, and later moved her business to New Orleans’s black business district. Her great-niece Arthé Anthony, who is interviewed in Through a Lens Darkly, says, “Florestine is a pioneer because only 101 black women were known to be photographers in the country when she opened her home studio in 1920.” Between 1920 and 1949, Collins documented African American life, capturing images of graduations, communions, and recitals.
Collins supported herself and her family throughout the Great Depression and in the process created a visual legacy that taps into the social and cultural history of New Orleans and the South. “Her work is important because it helps tell the story of the New Orleans Creole community over the almost 30 years she was in business,” says Anthony. “The community has been imagined as exceptional, or even exotic—and in some ways it was indeed unique in the Deep South because of their history as free people of color, Catholicism, and occupational and residential patterns in the city. However, race was ever present in shaping their lives, as exemplified by demeaning images of black Americans from this time. Florestine, like all other black portraitists of this period, worked with her clients to construct images that reflected pride, sophistication, and dignity.”
Collins’s photography can be viewed in Picturing Black New Orleans, a book written by her great-niece Arthé Anthony. Drawing from family records, oral histories, and photographs rescued from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, this book blends Collins’s story with those of the individuals she photographed, documenting profound changes in the lives of Louisiana Creoles and African Americans.
“Florestine’s photographs remain important because they contribute to a nuanced interpretation of the history of African Americans,” says Anthony. Deborah Willis, author of Reflections in Black and co-producer of Through a Lens Darkly, says, “This book is a revelation.”
Below are some of Collins’s fascinating images that give us a rich look at the cultural landscape of New Orleans nearly a century ago.