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Deborah Willis

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Information about Deborah Willis

Profile image of Deborah Willis

Profession

Category:
ArtMakers
EducationMakers
Occupation(s):
Photographer
Curator
Photography Professor

Favorites

Favorite Color:
Black, White
Favorite Food:
Pasta
Favorite Time of Year:
Summer
Favorite Vacation Spot:
Home
Favorite Quote:
Hey, Girl.

Birthplace

Born:
2/5/1948
Birth Location:
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Profession

Category:
ArtMakers
EducationMakers
Occupation(s):
Photographer
Curator
Photography Professor

Favorites

Favorite Color:
Black, White
Favorite Food:
Pasta
Favorite Time of Year:
Summer
Favorite Vacation Spot:
Home
Favorite Quote:
Hey, Girl.

Birthplace

Born:
2/5/1948
Birth Location:
Philadelphia
See how Deborah Willis is related to other HistoryMakers

Biography

Curator, photographer and photographer professor Deborah Willis was born on February 5, 1948 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Ruth and Thomas Willis. The family traditions of photography and quilting would later inspire her career and artistic point of view. Even as a child, she noticed the scarcity of images of blacks in the media. She received her B.A. degree at Temple University in 1972, her B.F.A. degree at the Philadelphia College of Art in 1975, and her M.F.A. degree from Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute in 1980. While working towards her degrees, Willis worked part-time with a variety of arts centers and nonprofits. Her work helped cement her interest in arts education.

After receiving her M.F.A. degree, Willis became the exhibitions coordinator and curator of Photographs and Prints at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. For the next twelve years, she worked at the Schomburg Center, supervising a collection that includes portraits of famous African Americans, scenes from black history and the work of notable African American photographers. She organized exhibitions of work by James VanDerZee, Doris Ullman, Anthony Barboza, and many others. While working at the Schomburg Center, Willis also published her first book, "Black Photographers, 1840-1940: An Illustrated Bio-bibliography" and began exhibiting her own photographs. She has since exhibited all over the country, most notably at the Smithsonian, the Steinbaum Krauss Gallery and the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery. In 1992, Willis moved to Washington, D.C. and became exhibitions curator at the Smithsonian’s Center for African American History and Culture. Working at the Smithsonian for the next eight years, Willis was widely respected as a scholar, curator and artist. During her time at the Smithsonian and the years since then, she has published several more books, including The Black Female Body: A Photographic History (with Carla Williams), Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840-Present, and biographical works on Lorna Simpson, J.P. Ball and James VanDerZee.

Deborah Willis has received several prestigious awards, including the International Center of Photography Infinity Award for Writing in Photography and alumni awards from both the Pratt Institute and the Philadelphia University of the Arts. In 2000, she was the recipient of the esteemed MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship which recognizes highly potential, creative individuals who contribute to society and culture. Soon thereafter, she moved back to New York and joined the faculty of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts as a professor of photography and imaging and eventually became the chair of the department. In 2003, Willis earned her Ph.D. degree in cultural studies at George Mason University. Throughout her career, Willis has authored many books and articles and organized or contributed to countless exhibitions exploring the role of African Americans both in front and behind the lens.

Deborah Willis was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on June 27, 2007.

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  • Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Deborah Willis' interview
  • Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Deborah Willis lists her favorites
  • Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Deborah Willis describes her mother's family background, pt. 1
  • Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Deborah Willis describes her mother's family background, pt. 2
  • Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Deborah Willis describes her mother
  • Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Deborah Willis describes her father's family background
  • Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Deborah Willis describes her earliest childhood memories
  • Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Deborah Willis remembers her home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Deborah Willis describes her parents' businesses
  • Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Deborah Willis remembers the holidays
  • Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Deborah Willis recalls going to the movies
  • Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Deborah Willis recalls her upbringing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Deborah Willis describes the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood
  • Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Deborah Willis remembers her early interest in history
  • Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Deborah Willis describes her schooling
  • Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Deborah Willis remembers her early work experiences
  • Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Deborah Willis describes her early interest in photography
  • Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Deborah Willis describes her aspirations upon graduating high school
  • Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Deborah Willis describes her work with Volunteers in Service to America
  • Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Deborah Willis describes her decision to pursue photography
  • Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Deborah Willis describes her early career in photography
  • Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Deborah Willis remembers the Philadelphia College of Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Deborah Willis remembers meeting her husband
  • Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Deborah Willis recalls her decision to attend the Pratt Institute in New York City
  • Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Deborah Willis describes her work at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City
  • Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Deborah Willis describes her role at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
  • Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Deborah Willis talks about her first book
  • Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Deborah Willis describes her curatorial work, pt. 1
  • Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Deborah Willis describes her curatorial work, pt. 2
  • Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Deborah Willis describes her photographic work
  • Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Deborah Willis talks about her photographic quilts
  • Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Deborah Willis describes her role at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
  • Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Deborah Willis talks about her book, 'Reflections in Black'
  • Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Deborah Willis remembers the death of her nephew
  • Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Deborah Willis describes her exhibition, 'Reflections in Black'
  • Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Deborah Willis remembers her MacArthur Fellowship
  • Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Deborah Willis recalls her diagnosis with breast cancer
  • Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Deborah Willis remembers teaching during her chemotherapy
  • Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Deborah Willis describes the courses she taught at Harvard University
  • Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Deborah Willis talks about her exhibition, 'Let Your Motto Be Resistance'
  • Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Deborah Willis describes her photographs of the African American community
  • Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Deborah Willis talks about her photographs of shotgun houses
  • Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Deborah Willis reflects upon her career
  • Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Deborah Willis narrates her photographs, pt. 1
  • Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Deborah Willis narrates her photographs, pt. 2