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Dr. Deborah Willis: The Art of Capturing Us

By Trone Dowd

The world of photography is one of vision. It is one in which a person’s eye for beauty, pain, wit, social status and many other aspects of the human experience can be made tangible. Photography literally puts it all on display for all to see. But in a field where you would think variety is key to keeping things fresh, the reality was different. It wasn’t that long ago when a vast majority of the gatekeepers in photography held a baseless and inexplicable contempt for women visionaries, particularly those of color.

One woman, a trailblazer from Philadelphia, fought to not only realize her dream, but also level the playing field and carve out a path for future visionaries of color who sought only to share their work with the world.

Discovering A Dream

Dr. Deborah Willis grew up in the city of Brotherly Love, a haven for black and ethnic culture in the 50s and 60s. Willis was often surrounded by stark examples of black beauty, influenced by the family’s beauty shop.

“My mom owned the beauty shop,” she told The Press. “Women used to come in and change their look. My mom used to curl hair and straighten hair and stylize hair.”

She said that seeing the change between the moment these women came in and when they left was fascinating dichotomy. Her interest in how these moments are captured however, solidified at a later date.

“I was seven, often going to the library weekly,” she said. “I found a book, The Sweet Flypaper of Life, by Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes. It was a book that told visual stories about black people. Back at the shop, my Mom always had Ebony magazine, Jet magazine, Life [magazine] and Look magazine. I have been fascinated with images since I was seven. But seeing Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes’ book, it really showed me the story of growing up in Philadelphia. It was about tenants in New York, but the lighting was something that I knew. Soft light, black skin. It really excited me and I still remember seeing that book.”

The visual stylings of legendary black artist Roy DeCarava left a lasting impression on Willis. Never losing sight of her interest in the visual arts, others began to take notice. In her years as a student, a man in the neighborhood by the name of Jack Franklin was a photographer for a local black publication known simply as The Scoop.

“He used to walk around with his camera dangling, walking down the street,” she recalled. “I was always fascinated by him. With the way he was about to make photographs move around.”

She continued observe the work of photographers around her, eventually coming across a man by the name of Gordon Parks as an undergrad student.

“I wrote to Gordon Parks in 1972,” she said. “I told him ‘I want to meet you, I want to become a photographer, I want to interview you and write about your work.’”

Parks responded immediately and offered to speak with young Willis. The two would hit it off.

In 1972, she would also meet Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Moneta Sleet, Jr. Sleet, working for Ebony magazine at the time, gave her invaluable advice on chasing a career in photography.

“We spent a lot of time together talking about the difficulties and the beauty of doing the work that we do. They were my two mentors.” 

“Taking up the place of a good white man”

Even with Willis’ proactive nature, the proverbial glass ceiling repeatedly reared its ugly head. Her attempts at grabbing the brass ring were often thwarted by many of the white men who led her college classes at the Philadelphia College of the Arts (now known as the University of the Arts).

“I was one of three women in the [photography program] when I was an undergrad,” she said. “One of my professors told me that I was taking up the place of a good man. He kept on beating me down with the experience of being the black girl in the class. There were 18 men in the class and yet I was taking up a place of a man. That was really difficult.”

When she wasn’t being instructed by the small minded educators who couldn’t appreciate her drive and love for photography, Willis said that the lone black girl experience was equally discouraging at times.

“Studying [the history of] photography and not seeing black faces was difficult,” she said.

Willis, though, never let this discourage her. In this class, she decided that she would take matters into her own hands and find the people of color that have contributed great work to the field of photography.

“I thought it was time to create a moment where we can have voices in visual images of black people,” she said. “I found them. At the time, the Black Photographer’s Annual was being published. I also used to read the black press all the time. I found the names of black photographers. I also looked at ads and took a look at city directories which would have an asterisk next to these names indicating that they were colored.”

She would press on through college, completing her pet project of discovering the unrecognized world of black photographers right there in her home city. Upon graduating, Willis decided that she would go to Pratt for her Master’s, where she says she had the same experience all over again. At Pratt, she was one of two women in the school’s photography program, and the only black woman.

“The two of us had a difficult time with a male professor who basically said ‘You need to go to Photography 101’ and learn how to take photographs,” she said. “And I’m glad he did that. Because I ended up studying with a woman photographer by the name of Jean Locey who ended up teaching at Cornell. She wanted me to tell a story in a way she taught her undergraduates. [My professor] thought it was a punishment, but it was the best experience because I had someone that cared about teaching me and talking to me about my work. Studying with her was really important for me.”

A Place For Black Voices

Willis’ experience as an undergrad and graduate student only fueled her drive to excel and see more black faces in modern photography. She would go onto earn her Master’s in Photography in 1979, a Master’s in Art History from City College and a Ph.D. from George Mason University’s Cultural Studies program in 2001.

She has also earned numerous honors of great prestige including two NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Literary Work. She has written nearly 30 books and is currently Chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at Tisch School of the Arts of New York University.

She has been an advocate for highlighting the importance of preserving black vision in photography. The Press asked Willis to elaborate on why she thinks it’s important to see black subjects photographed by black photographers, to which she said “sensitivities.”

“I find that it is in the heart of the photographer that a story is told.”

She brought up that the work of Bruce Davidson, a civil rights photographer during the 60s, stood out among his peers because of his ability to see what the movement was about.

“He understood looking at black faces. He understood the sense of pride and joy that black people experienced in fighting for their voting rights. He wasn’t objectifying them. What happens when racist photographers who were there looking to find black people as othered, they tended to find images that demean black people and project their camera that way.”

As a professor, Willis is very conscious of what she administers to her students. She tries exposing them to all perspectives and consider the ideas and opinions of exemplary women in the field. She requests that her students quote at least five black women in their research paper, a tactic she picked up from an academic organization called Sister Scholars Advisory Council.

“They need to find the sources and the voices of black women,” she said proudly. “Men are always quoted. They are always the master voice. When my studio class is writing, I make sure my students go see shows uptown. That they go to the Chelsea galleries that show black photographers. That’s how I create that dialogue to make sure that they go out there.”

She admitted that some students occasionally push back against this concerted effort to diversify a student’s palette. But she truly believes that this kind of exposure improves the knowledge base of a photographer in training. She also said that her efforts have had meaningful impacts on many of her students’ lives.

“My son and I gave a talk together to the freshmen at NYU last year, and one of the students said, ‘Thank you. I grew up in Texas and I never knew that there were black civil war soldiers. Why am I just graduating from high school and never knew this?’ I felt empowered.”

Willis had all the proof she needed to see that lack of representation in all things, including photography and history, is still an issue all these years later.

The Future of Black Photography

That’s also not to say she hasn’t taken notice of how far the culture has come.

“I think that [the younger generation] has taken the experiences that they’ve had in college and with others in their travels to say I’m coming to the table,” Willis said. “They aren’t asking to be at the table, they are making room for themselves at the table. I really love what I see happening. The sense of creating new ways and new narratives to tell our stories. There are new platforms that have developed.”

She looks at social media as one of many extensions of that vision young people have brought to the forefront. Her personal favorite is Instagram.

“I love Instagram,” she said.

Willis noted that many of the photographers she’s come to appreciate in recent years have used these new age tools masterfully to both share and incorporate into their work. She listed off Trevor Stuurman, Omar Victor Diop and Adama Delphine Fawundu as just a few of the photographers she admires, the last of which she personally mentored.

“I think Instagram has gotten a hold of getting people to post images and people like them because they feel good about them or they post them because they feel good about what they’ve experienced. I think that that’s an exchange that is important.”

Most recently, one of Willis’ former students, Tyler Mitchell, made headlines when he was personally selected by music icon Beyonce to shoot her recent feature in the September issue of Vogue Magazine. This marked the first time a black photographer’s work was featured on the cover of the publication. Willis told The Press that prior to his recent breakthrough, she knew to keep an eye out for his next big move. But just as important as his accomplishment, is Beyonce’s role in insistence on employing and showcasing black talent.

“For Beyonce to do that, we hope that this isn’t a one time thing,” she said. “We need someone that is going to take the lead. We hope that editors will now pay attention to this and wonder why they haven’t done it before.”

With trailblazers like Willis, who have worked endlessly to ensure that black talent doesn’t go unrecognized now the same way it did decades ago, it seems as though the final part of this equation is getting those in power to recognize the importance of who we let portray Black beauty.

“I think this is really important,” she said. “It takes one person like Beyonce or someone else to make this the new norm.”