Deborah Willis

1948 | Philadelphia, United States

American photographer, historian and curator.

Deborah Willis is internationally recognised as a pioneer of Black historical research and a foundational figure in defining a Black photographic canon. D. Willis’s career has included both archival work preserving the images of past Black photographers and her own studio practice.
The images she highlights are often concerned with the rhythm of everyday Black communal life and the parallels and connections between quiet moments of Black existence across decades and locations. The work she selects is full of intimacy, love and joy. By focusing on the profound ways in which culture and lineage manifest in every aspect of Black life she has helped to radically redefine how Black communities are depicted in visual media using images that have always existed but seldom received recognition

D. Willis was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1948. She earned a Bachelor in Fine Arts in Photography from Philadelphia College of Art in 1975, followed by a Master in Fine Arts in Photography from Pratt Institute in 1979. When she later left Philadelphia to pursue a Master’s in Art History at City College of New York she brought with her an artistic practice already deeply rooted in Black community and connection.

In 1985 she published her first photo book, Black Photographers, 1840-1940: An Illustrated Bio-bibliography. In it, she unearthed the work of hundreds of Black photographers, many of whom would have otherwise languished in obscurity and contextualised their careers with researched biographies. Following this first publication, D. Willis has gone on to publish dozens of subsequent photo books including her groundbreaking and internationally renowned book Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present (2000). The latter defined a new approach to Black art and uncovered a Black photographic history stretching back to the beginnings of the medium itself. The book brought international attention to and reverence for the work of Black photographers and inspired an exhibition of the same name. In The Black Female Body: A Photographic History (2002), which she co-wrote with Carla Williams, the pair trace photographs of Black women throughout Western history. Both authors elevate the people in these images beyond mere subject or stereotype and imbue them with humanity and identity.

In 1980 D. Willis became the curator of photographs as well as the coordinator of prints and exhibitions at the Schomburg Institute for Research in Black Culture. She held this position until 1992 at which time she became the curator of exhibitions at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. In 2000 her work garnered her a MacArthur Fellowship and five years later she became a Guggenheim Fellow. She was made Visiting Joint Chair of Documentary Studies and American Studies at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before becoming Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

Adia Cullors

A biography produced as part of “The Origin of Others” research programme, in partnership with the Clark Art Institute.

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