Deborah
Willis

Photography by Jody Rogac

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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 voices. 

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.

 

P: Over your career, you have published twenty books. When did you start writing?  And how did your first book get published?

DW:  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.”

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P: 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? 

DW: 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.

 

P: How do you seek to spread love? 

DW: 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.”

 

Read the full interview in Issue 3.

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