Words by Subin Anderson
Photography bu Jody Rogac
Deborah Willis is a venerable photographer, author, curator, and historian well-known for her extensive contributions to the history of black photography. Throughout her career, familial love has served as important inspiration in her own practice and in her scholarly pursuits. She has worked closely with her own son, Hank Willis Thomas, and curated exhibitions centering on the personal histories of black families through photography. She not only dedicated her career to reexamining African-American imagery but also works and mentors young artists and students who are developing their own voice.
PLUS: I read that you were interested in photography from a young age. Can you pinpoint an exact moment when you realized you wanted to be an artist? Did you experience a sort of epiphany?
Deborah Willis: So when I was growing up, my older sister read a lot and loved fairy tales. Every week from the time I was six until I was 12, we went to the local library in North Philadelphia to select a book to read together. I always looked for books that had photographs in them. And I remember when I was seven years old, I discovered a small book, The Sweet Flypaper of Life by Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes. I was spellbound by the light in those photographs and by the subjects– black women that looked beautiful and like the women in my family.
I was also introduced to photography early on because my dad was obsessed with his Rolleiflex camera and photographed the family often. My mother also had a beauty shop in our house and had a number of picture magazines. I think the epiphany was the culmination of all of those things— family photographs, magazine images, and discovery storytelling through photographs.
What practitioners from other disciplines have influenced your worldview?
I don’t know where to begin. There are truly so many people who have influenced my life and work, so many people who have shaped my vision as a photographer. In music, Prince and Dakota Staton. When it comes to writers, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison have really impacted my life. Artists like Moreso, Jacob Lawrence, Louise Bourgeois, Faith Ringgold, Emma Amos, and Betye Saar.
Over your career, you have published twenty books. When did you start writing? And how did your first book get published?
As an undergraduate student at the Philadelphia College of Art, I noticed that I was reading very few stories that depicted the beauty of black culture and diverse stories of women. And very few stories regarding black photographers working during the first 100 years of the practice of photography. Rather, when I saw black people in photographs, they were always the subject, not the imagemaker. I began an effort to reimagine the school curriculum to make it more inclusive. That’s when I began doing research for my first book, Black Photographers: A Bio-Bibliography 1840-1940. For over a year, I compiled a long list of black photographers from this period from research in books, art catalogs, newspapers, and city directories. I wrote an extensive research paper about their works and created short biographical entries about their lives. One of the early photographers I met and interviewed was Gordon Parks. I recall his response to my letter inviting me to interview him the next time I visited New York City. I did and later when I became a photo specialist at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at The New York Public Library I met an editor who asked if I had an interest in writing a book on black photographers. The editor, Richard Newman, read my research paper and followed up within six months with a contract to write a “bio-bibliography on black photographers with illustrations.”
What did the exhibitions you curated at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture focus on?
Humanity was the unifying message. I curated an exhibition that centered on the history of activism, family life, and artists who focused on personal memory as a source for their art.
Is there a particular book/film/photograph that you consistently look back to?
Two films I love and always find inspirational for my artwork and teaching are Girl in Room 20 (1946) and Mahogany (1975) starring Diana Ross. For literature, John Pultz’s The Body and The Lens: Photography 1839 to Present and Gordon Parks’ Photograph: Segregation Sign, Mobile, Alabama.’
What does photography mean to you personally during this moment in time
I often think about how we are affected by images and especially by images of black people. Toni Morrison wrote: “I am a storyteller and therefore an optimist, a firm believer in the ethical bend of the human heart… from my point of view, your life is already artful – waiting, just waiting, for you to make it art.” I connected to this phrase when I read this and in answering this question, I had to share this as I am an optimist. Growing up in a beauty shop (a woman-only space at that time), I sat at the knee of women listening to the gossip, love stories, work stories, and broken heart stories as I waited for my mother to finish her “heads”. I observed a safe space for history lessons and storytelling. In contextualizing my past and looking at photographs on Instagram, some reflecting on the current political climate while others sharing joy in people’s everyday lives, I see my responsibility as a photographer and professor changing. Since the initial lockdown, I have been asked about my responsibility as an artist, historian, and teacher in discussing photography in the news. Photography has had a major impact on exposing the racially motivated murders, the pandemic-caused deaths and illnesses, and the protesters striving for change here in the United States and globally. Witnessing world events has become a process of self-reflection for me.
Over your career, you have worked as a curator, professor, and artist. Is there one role that you enjoy most? How do these roles impact one another?
The experience I enjoy most is the collapse of all – artist, curator, professor! As I organize my classes or prepare for an exhibition, I find myself incorporating overlapping themes in my practice. For example, my seminars explore how the presence of the black body affects how we see and interpret the world. And in preparing for the exhibition I curated this year, Framing Moments at the Kalamazoo Institute of the Arts, I looked at the construction of beauty and style, identity, and race to frame the collection of photographic images at the museum. Historical images of injustices and protests during the 19th century and more recently during the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the pandemic illuminate a long history of black peoples’ collective fight against racism. As I explore these themes in my curatorial and teaching work, I also reflect on my own practice and I grapple with key questions about my life as a photographer.
In 2017, you said, “The photograph for me is an instrument of memory and explores the value of self, family, and memory in documenting everyday life. I use this concept of a loving family as a form of activism.” Does this statement still resonate with you?
My artwork is based on visualizing and re-imagining black families over a long period of time. I am also interested in exploring social injustices for oppressed peoples. Over the past few years with the deaths of young black people in America and others in the Middle East and Africa, family photographs have been used to humanize these deaths. I use these photographs from personal collections as a framework to write and make. I am intrigued by the selection of images we all share in the grief and in sustaining life stories.
You collaborated with your son, acclaimed artist Hank Willis Thomas, for your exhibition, d Progeny: Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas (2011). Can you tell us how your collaboration started and how it’s different from your prior work?
I worked closely with my son, Hank, to select photographs for the exhibition. As part of the project, we culled through my old negatives, contact sheets, and prints. Hank was amazed at the range of images I had made over the years that were never published or exhibited. He was dismayed that I rarely discussed my work as a photographer or included my photographs in exhibitions that I curated. As we began to select and edit for the exhibition, I found an interesting correlation between my photography and his work. We were both asking critical questions about the black body in photography.
In your work, Sometimes I See Myself in You (2008), the viewers see three faces horizontally aligned. Here, the idea that a person’s identity is shaped by both past and future familial generations is clearly depicted. It seems to grapple with the idea that two different people can be part of each other.
Hank and I were discussing how we are often reminded by others that we look alike. Prior to Covid-19, we traveled around often in the U.S., Europe, or the UK and we were often asked “Are you Hank’s mom?” or “Are you Deb’s son?” And we sometimes find ourselves doing similar work to each other without knowing it.
How do you think your work has influenced Hank’s artistic practice?
I believe that spending time in the archive after school influenced him in a way we never realized. He often visited me at work at both the Schomburg and the Smithsonian and watched me use the archives to create and weave stories from disparate objects and spaces. He was often a keen observer and interrogated images that seemed troubling. He was and still is a close listener. His generosity is truly inspiring.
In your latest book, The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship (2021), you represented the untold stories of black individuals who have shaped American history. I’m curious to know what inspired you to publish this book and what the research process was like.
I had a desire to write this book for a long time– pretty much ever since I found images of black Civil War soldiers and became really curious about their lives. There’s a phrase about the Civil War that the North won the war but the South won the narrative. In the book, I wanted to expose the untold narrative surrounding black soldiers. I write about black men who posed for their portraits and in doing so I highlight the challenges they faced in fighting for their own freedom. I also wanted to personalize their experiences by including letters written by black soldiers expressing their need to fight and their mothers t who demanded that their sons received equal pay and treatment. I hoped to build on the stories behind the photographs. When I was a young student, I was unaware of this important story in history. This book frames the idea of memory through the photographs, letters, and diaries of black Union Soldiers from the beginning of the Civil War as it meditates on the role that photography played in visualizing the hidden history of the black soldier.
What power does love hold in your life?
I began my artistic career in the 1970s in North Philadelphia. Earlier, I referenced my 99-year old mother who owned and operated a beauty shop. Her interest in quilt-making, storytelling, and styling– all expressions of love–was and still is central to my art practice. Love is sustaining—loving my work and family fortifies me.
How do you seek to spread love?
I am encouraged every time I see Hank’s in public space neon word-art LOVEOVERRULES. It is a call to action and central to all of us to consider love as a way of life. And I am inspired daily as a photographer and writer by the poet and author, Michelle Cliff’s words. She writes about the responsibility of black women artists in reevaluating the image of the black woman as an object. In “Object Into Sound,” she writes “Black women have been doubly objectified as black, as women, under white supremacy, under patriarchy. It has been the task of black women artists to transform this objectification: to become the subject commenting on the meaning of the object or to become the subject rejecting the object and revealing the real experience of being.”
What’s next for you?
I am working on an ongoing photography project titled Staying Power at Monument Lab, which is an exploration of beauty in my hometown of Philadelphia. Guyanese writer, Mark A. Williams, once observed, “The hardest part of leaving is staying.” I have thought about this notion, about the transience of this country, how leaving is often synonymous with upward mobility, and how those things, those people that remain, that stay behind get discarded, dismissed, and become invisible in the way that all things waiting to be swept away become invisible. This is particularly evident in black communities where this American tug of war between community vs. mobility is exacerbated, where the ‘price of the ticket,’ as James Baldwin wrote, for thriving black communities was redlining, urban renewal, gentrification, and the perception of powerlessness.
This exhibition has everything to do with the power of those who stayed, and in particular, black women whose power has never been transient has never left, always stayed, because the basis of that power is love. But if one does not understand that basis, that power, that permanence, then what one gets in terms of representation is a sidewalk altar of fifty or so Hennessey bottles, candles, dried flowers, withered balloons, a faded t-shirt with photographs in memoriam of a young black woman killed in the neighborhood. One is asked to render things waiting to be swept away. And what is missed is what Alice Walker challenges us to imagine in her 1974 essay, “In Search of Our Grandmothers’ Gardens;” That is, the experiences of our creative female ancestors. Walker calls upon black women to define their own identity as black women artists throughout history…”What did it mean for a black woman to be an artist in our grandmothers’ time? In our great-grandmother’s days?… How was the creativity of the black woman kept alive, year after year and century after century, when, for most of the years black people have been in the U.S., it has been a punishable crime for a black person to read or write? And the freedom to paint, to sculpt, to expand the mind with action did not exist.” After re-reading Alice’s words, I have been reconsidering my original project of photographing the neighborhood’s row houses to include the experiences of women who reinvest in the Village communities. Researching and photographing for Staying Power: Black Women and Work allowed me to reflect on joy, loss, love, and storytelling – certainly the continuum of my work.