Deborah Willis’s Photography and Scholarship Foreground Beauty in Black Portraiture

Ayanna Dozier
Mar 31, 2023 5:42PM

Portrait of Deborah Willis by Alice Proujansky. Courtesy of Institute of Contemporary Art, San Francisco.

“I grew up in a house that believed in beauty,” Deborah Willis said in an interview at the end of March. “That’s why there’s so many aspects to [my work], which happens with picking up the camera or picking up my phone, or writing about these images.…I’m always looking for moments of beauty that were lost in our everyday lives.” This quote encapsulates Willis’s expansive career as a curator, photographer, writer, and scholar: a caretaker of imagemaking always working towards documenting and recording the beauty of Black life.

The Philadelphia-born, Brooklyn-based artist’s expansive multidisciplinary practice includes scholarship (she is professor and chair of the department of photography and imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts), as well as imagemaking. This wide range of work is being affirmed this year across a series of institutional exhibitions that she curated or has work featured in. Late last year, she was also awarded the biennial Don Tyson Prize for the Advancement of American Art, which includes a $200,000 unrestricted cash prize—she was a 2014 NAACP Image Award recipient and a MacArthur and Guggenheim fellow.

Portrait of Deborah Willis signing a copy of The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship at the ceremony for the Don Tyson Prize for the Advancement of American Art, 2022. Courtesy of Ketchum Studios.


Willis’s latest curatorial effort, “Rising Sun: Artists in an Uncertain America,” opened last Friday at both the African American Museum in Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, and is on view through October 8th. The exhibition, which features installations by 20 artists, continues threads of research from Willis’s 2021 book The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship, as well as another exhibition she curated at New York University’s Kimmel Windows Gallery, “The Black Civil War Soldier,” which closed at the beginning of this month. “Rising Sun” also includes a new wallpaper of images of monuments of Civil War soldiers throughout various cities by Willis herself.

“When I was in school we never studied the words or images of Black Civil War soldiers,” Willis said. “I decided that as a photographer and a curator, I am always interested in storytelling through photographs, and the missing narrative for me was the stories behind the stories of the Black Civil War soldiers.” Willis has unearthed the stories of these soldiers through their love letters, written at a time when they were uncertain if would be alive to see a “rising sun”—a phrase quoted in both Benjamin Franklin and a lyric by James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”—the next day.

Installation view of “The Black Civil War Solider,” at New York University Kimmel Windows Gallery, 2022. Courtesy of Ketchum Studios.

“I just felt that the exchange of Black love were moments that weren’t captured in history,” Willis said. She notes that although the Civil War was nearly 200 years ago, it provides an invaluable teaching lesson for 21st-century American audiences in the context of the contemporary legislation being passed to suppress Black history in public schools. For Willis, her curation is an extension of her photographic practice: a way to reconfigure the eyes of audiences who have learned to perceive of Black history in absentia.

Willis’s first camera was a Kodak Brownie, given to her by her father. Later, she got a Honeywell Pentax that she used to photograph family gatherings. “I always wanted to photograph women and communities. I’m from a very large family so I, unfortunately, photographed a lot of funerals,” Willis said. These images made up the bulk of her work in the 1970s while she was in school. “I was more interested in the…storytelling and the work of women who were mourning and helping others mourn.”

Installation view, from left to right, of Deborah Willis, Living Room Picture Stories, 1994; Consuelo Kanaga, She is the Tree of Life to Them, 1950; Elizabeth Catlett, Madonna, 1982; Laura Aguilar, Clothed/Unclothed #34, 1994; and Kara Walker, Porgy and Bess Embracing, 2013, in “Black American Portrait” at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, 2023. Photo by Michael Jensen. Courtesy of Spelman College Museum of Fine Art.

Willis’s early work skewed black and white, since the Kodak color film she used was not designed to capture the skintones of people of color. Indeed, the company used “the Shirley card,” named after the white woman it depicted, to color-correct their photos. Whiteness, therefore, was the default for Kodak’s color film printing through the mid-1990s when they made their “Shirleys” more diverse. “I love black-and-white photography [but] I always wanted to make color images—I could never quite capture what I was looking for in color,” she said.

In the 1990s, Willis’s photographic work returned to her family. This time, she directed her attention to her mother’s beauty shop and the elderly hair stylists. “I decided that I wanted to photograph them and talk about caregiving and that exchange of caring for others,” Willis said.

Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas, Sometimes I See Myself in You, 2008. © Deborah Willis; Hank Willis Thomas. Courtesy of the artists and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

During that time period, following the death of her father, Willis became interested in making photographic quilts, using fabric with a personal meaning as a way to expand the work’s story. One of these quilts, Living Room Picture Stories (1994) is currently on view at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art as part of “Black American Portraits,” which first showed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last year.

Also featured in this exhibition is Willis’s 2008 collaboration with her son, the artist Hank Willis Thomas: Sometimes I See Myself in You, a print composed of composite images in which the two morph into one another. But, as “Black American Portraits” demonstrates, Willis’s influence on other photographers goes beyond her son. Indeed, the exhibition’s curator, Liz Andrews, was a former student of Willis.

Deborah Willis, Carrie at the Euro Salon, Eatonville, 2010. © Deborah Willis. Courtesy of the artist and Rena Bransten Gallery.

Also included in the show is the work of Willis’s mentor, photographer Gordon Parks, who encouraged Willis not to feel forced to confine herself to one thing in photography. This openness can be seen in her 2010 photograph Carrie at the Euro Salon, Eatonville, which documents photographer Carrie Mae Weems in a Black hair salon. The photograph, like Willis’s practice, invites audiences to experience the intimate encounters of personal and interpersonal relationships. (This photograph is currently on view in “Resting Our Eyes,” an exhibition on view at the ICA San Francisco through June 25th.)

Despite the monumental influence she has had in photography, Willis still remains humbled and moved by others’ reaction to her work. She shared a letter sent to her by an artist who grew up with her son that described what she thought of the grown-up Willis when she was a child. “She told me that she remembered me writing, going places, and not knowing of another adult who loved their work,” Willis said. “In a word, she thought I was free.”

Ayanna Dozier
Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s Staff Writer.