Profile: Deborah Willis (1948-)

Deborah Willis is a contemporary African-American artist, photographer, curator of photography, photographic historian, author, and educator. Among her awards and honors, she was a 2000 MacArthur Fellow. She is currently Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at Tisch School of the Arts of New York University.

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Early life and education

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Willis is the mother of conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas.  Her father was a photographer as well, and her close familial ties are apparent in works such as Daddy’s Ties: The Tie Quilt II (1992), and Progeny: Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas (2009).

Wilis’s degrees include a B.F.A. in photography from Philadelphia College of Art in 1975; an M.F.A. in photography from Pratt Institute in 1979; an M.A. in art history from City College of New York in 1986;  and a Ph.D. from the Cultural Studies Program of George Mason University in 2001.

Career

Willis was the curator of photographs and the prints/exhibition coordinator at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library between 1980 and 1992, after which she became the curator of an exhibition at the Center for African American History and Culture of the Smithsonian Institution for eight years. Between 2000 and 2001 she was Lehman Brady Visiting Joint Chair Professor in Documentary Studies and American Studies at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She then joined the faculty of New York University. Interested in “historic and cultural documentation and preservation,” she has published “some twenty books on African-American photographers and on the representation of blacks in photographic imagery.” Among them are Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present (2002), Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present (2009), and Black: A Celebration of a Culture (2014). Also known as “Deb Willis,” she survived a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2001. She was the curator of photographs and the prints/exhibition coordinator at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library between 1980 and 1992.

Willis co-produced the 2014 documentary film Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, which is based on her book Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the PresentIn 2008, she organized the exhibition Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits for the National Museum of African American History and Culture of the Smithsonian Institution.

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