An interesting fact about Washington DC is that it was once a predominantly black city, particularly in the late 1950s. With population growth, migration and a whole load of other factors, this trait ended up no longer being the case, with some arguing that black Washington is gradually disappearing. But there are still ways in which its memory can be maintained, such as through powerful images, something that this film realises and expresses with confidence and conviction alike.
A Chocolate Lens is a short documentary about the work of African-American photographer Steven Cummings, a man who characterises his own work as him trying to “find the power” through the images he captures. Described by those closest to him as a black intellectual artist, Cummings photography primarily consists of black communities going about their day. To an untrained eye they might seem mundane. But, similar to movies like Jim Jarmusch’s Patterson, it is in the supposed mundanity that the work’s beauty can be found within.
According to the film, Cummings was only able to afford black and white film for his camera early into his career. However, this accident of circumstance ended up enriching his work to the point of arguably being his trademark. The monochrome reels highlight the strength of his work – that it captures the transitions that occur and factors that persevere through time. While Washington may no longer be a predominantly black city, memories of the time that it was can still be seen through the generations that have come after and the customs or stories that have survived through every shift in time and placement. A friend of Cummings refers to Washington as a microcosm of America, and the term feels very apt when viewed through the lens of Cummings’ camera.
One of Cummings’ most powerful photos comes near the start of the film, where he shows a compilation of African-Americans whose picture he has taken. They all seem cheerful, with the exception of one woman in the middle who appears sad. Cummings contemplates why that is the case, and the conclusions he reaches emphasises his ambitions for finding the power. For although this woman seems weaker than those she is surrounded by, her willingness to be vulnerable and carry on omits a strength superior to that of the people around her. Perhaps this is one of the ways that Cummings examines black masculinity in the context of modern art, as one friend of his summarises. There is a humanity within the images that Cummings captures that makes his work such a fascinating subject matter.
Cummings’ accurately describes freelance artist work as a delicate balance between dedication towards employment and for the sake of one’s self, a sentiment that applies to many artistic forms beyond just photography. Although his work powerfully demonstrates the effects on the passage of time through black communities and a city that they were once the most populous group in, he is in it through a love of photography as opposed to wanting to make a grand political point. His work does make strong political points, but it is the search for truth and meaning that the most keen photographers strive for in the pursuit of the perfect image that appears to be his main source of inspiration, which would explain why his efforts of taking pictures for work rather than passion were less favourable to him than his bursts of inspiration. The film’s combination of interviews and visuals highlight how well Cummings has captured the essence of black communities through his work, while never downplaying how much weight there is in the creative drive that fuels such evocative imagery.
This reviewer was unaware of Steven Cummings’ work prior to this short film, yet director Gabriel Veras and team have done a marvellous job of championing him and his work. A blistering young talent with ambition and a fundamental love for his work, Cummings photography manages to be both thought-provoking and awe-inspiring alike. Short films such as this one shine a spotlight on emerging creatives such as Cummings so well. Here’s hoping this is only the start of a prosperous career for all involved.
Director: Gabriel Veras
Runtime: 21 minutes