Willis, Deborah

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Willis, Deborah

February 5, 1948

Deborah Willis is a photographer, curator, and art and cultural historian. Born in Philadelphia, Willis developed an early interest in photography from her father's cousin, who was the proprietor of a commercial photography studio and took many photographs of her family. Willis's most vivid early memory of the impact of photography came at age seven, when she encountered Roy DeCarava's photographs in The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955) at the public library. It was, she recalls, the first time she had seen a book with photographs of black people, and the impact was indelible. It inspired Willis to assemble a family photo album, trying to emulate the organization of images in DeCarava's book. She would subsequently devote her career to unearthing, promoting, and celebrating photography by artists of the African diaspora. Concurrently, she has maintained a long and successful career as an image-maker, with subject matter ranging from women bodybuilders to shotgun houses of the South, and in media ranging from photo-quilts to digital prints. Family, history, and memory are important recurring themes in her visual work.

Willis began her formal study of photography in the mid-1970s as a student at the Philadelphia College of Art in Pennsylvania, where she earned her B.F.A. degree. After receiving her M.F.A. degree from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1980, Willis became curator of prints and photographs and exhibitions coordinator at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library. For twelve years she helped not only to reorganize and develop that immense collection, she also almost single-handedly established the discipline of the history of black photographers. In her exhibitions at the Schomburg, Willis debuted the work of many now-prominent photographers, including Lorna Simpson (b. 1960) and Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953). Willis received an M.A. in museum studies from the City College of New York in 1986.

Willis also rediscovered the forgotten careers of some of the earliest African-American photographers, including James Presley Ball (18251904) and James VanDerZee (18861983), on whom she published monographs in 1993. Her groundbreaking surveys Black Photographers, 18401940: An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography (1985) and An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography of Black Photographers, 19401988 (1989) remain the most important and influential sources for information about black photographers. In 1992 Willis moved to Washington, D.C., to become curator of exhibitions at the Center for African American History and Culture, part of the Smithsonian Institution. In 2000 she published Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present, the culmination of more than twenty-five years' research and scholarship. The more than six hundred images in the book were also part of a touring exhibition organized through the Smithsonian.

As a photographic artist Willis has turned her uncompromising eye on explorations of the themes of family and history. Her series of photo quilts, made in the 1990s, incorporate the textile tradition of her grandmother and great aunt, as well as referencing her father's profession as a tailor, using vintage fabrics (including his old neckties) overlaid with photographs, some made by Willis as a teenager. In 2000 Willis became the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, which allowed her to focus on personal projects, including series of photographs on beauty shops and women at work. In 2001 she became professor of photography and imaging at New York University's Tisch School for the Arts, and she completed her doctorate in cultural studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, in 2003.

See also Art in the United States, Contemporary; Photography, U.S.


Hall, Stuart, and Mark Sealy, eds. Different: A Historical Context. London: Phaidon, 2001.

Mettner, Martina, ed. In Their Mothers' Eyes: Women Photographers and their Children. Zurich and New York: Edition Stemmle, 2001.

Willis-Thomas, Deborah. Black Photographers, 18401940: An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography. New York and London: Garland, 1985.

Willis-Thomas, Deborah. An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography of Black Photographers, 19401988. New York and London: Garland, 1989.

Willis, Deborah, ed. J. P. Ball: Daguerrean and Studio Photographer. New York and London: Garland, 1993.

Willis, Deborah, ed. Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography. New York: New Press, 1994.

Willis, Deborah. Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present. New York: Norton, 2000.

Willis, Deborah. Family History Memory: Recording African American Life. Irvington, N.Y.: Hylas, 2005.

Willis-Braithwaite, Deborah, and Rodger C. Birt. VanDerZee: Photographer, 18861983. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1993.

Willis, Deborah, and Carla Williams. The Black Female Body: A Photographic History. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.

carla williams (2005)