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Deborah Willis

Curator and photographer 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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Temple University

University of the Arts

Pratt Institute

City College of New York

George Mason University

Roosevelt Middle School

West Philadelphia High School

Rudolph S. Walton School

Peirce College

Germain School of Photography

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James Lowry of The Boston Consulting Group



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Hey, Girl.

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New York

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New York



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Short Description

Photographer and curator Deborah Willis (1948 - ) was a former exhibitions curator at the Smithsonian’s Center for African American History and Culture as well as the recipient of the 2000 MacArthur Fellowship.


New York University, Tisch School of Arts

Shapiro's Shoes

Temple University

Volunteers in Service to America

Neighborhood Youth Corps

Brooklyn Museum

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Duke University

Harvard University

New York University

Center for African American History and Culture

Main Sponsor
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Black, White

Timing Pairs

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Deborah Willis' interview</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Deborah Willis lists her favorites</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Deborah Willis describes her mother's family background, pt. 1</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Deborah Willis describes her mother's family background, pt. 2</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Deborah Willis describes her mother</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Deborah Willis describes her father's family background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Deborah Willis describes her earliest childhood memories</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Deborah Willis remembers her home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Deborah Willis describes her parents' businesses</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Deborah Willis remembers the holidays</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Deborah Willis recalls going to the movies</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Deborah Willis recalls her upbringing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Deborah Willis describes the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Deborah Willis remembers her early interest in history</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Deborah Willis describes her schooling</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Deborah Willis remembers her early work experiences</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Deborah Willis describes her early interest in photography</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Deborah Willis describes her aspirations upon graduating high school</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Deborah Willis describes her work with Volunteers in Service to America</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Deborah Willis describes her decision to pursue photography</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Deborah Willis describes her early career in photography</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Deborah Willis remembers the Philadelphia College of Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Deborah Willis remembers meeting her husband</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Deborah Willis recalls her decision to attend the Pratt Institute in New York City</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Deborah Willis describes her work at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Deborah Willis describes her role at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Deborah Willis talks about her first book</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Deborah Willis describes her curatorial work, pt. 1</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Deborah Willis describes her curatorial work, pt. 2</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Deborah Willis describes her photographic work</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Deborah Willis talks about her photographic quilts</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Deborah Willis describes her role at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Deborah Willis talks about her book, 'Reflections in Black'</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Deborah Willis remembers the death of her nephew</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Deborah Willis describes her exhibition, 'Reflections in Black'</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Deborah Willis remembers her MacArthur Fellowship</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Deborah Willis recalls her diagnosis with breast cancer</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Deborah Willis remembers teaching during her chemotherapy</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Deborah Willis describes the courses she taught at Harvard University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Deborah Willis talks about her exhibition, 'Let Your Motto Be Resistance'</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Deborah Willis describes her photographs of the African American community</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Deborah Willis talks about her photographs of shotgun houses</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Deborah Willis reflects upon her career</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Deborah Willis narrates her photographs, pt. 1</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Deborah Willis narrates her photographs, pt. 2</a>







Deborah Willis describes her curatorial work, pt. 1
Deborah Willis describes her role at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
You've published your first two books--the groundbreaking bio-bibliographies of photographers that, I think, will be useful forever. Can you tell me a little bit about the shows that you're curating, and where you're curating them, and why you aren't including your own photography?$$Well, the shows--I started curating shows at the Schomburg Center [Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York, New York], and then I was invited by [HistoryMaker] Mary Schmidt Campbell--she was then director of the Studio Museum in Harlem [New York, New York]; she's now the dean of the Tisch School of the Arts [Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, New York, New York]. But, I started--she asked if I was interested in different shows or different curating shows, and so I curated a show ['Harlem Heyday: The Photography of James Van Der Zee'] for her on Van- on, on James Van Der Zee, the works of James Van Der Zee and, and other photographers. But also, at the time, I was--at the time that I was interested in documenting Harlem [New York, New York] photographers, there were two--there were twin brother photographers, Morgan and Marvin Smith [Morgan Smith and Marvin Smith]; I met them in the paper, in looking at old magazines, that they were photographers, and then one day in 1981, they walked into the Schomburg Center, and I'm like, these are these guys that I'm seeing in the news in the '70s [1970s] and the '60s [1960s] when I was researching in the '70s [1970s]. But I knew their faces because they were, because they were twin brothers, that they, they were, they were beautiful men, and they were often photographed for ads. So, they walked in and I said, "You know, I've been looking for you all my life," (laughter) and they, and they--we kind of adopted each other, you know, as a family, really supportive of my work, and so I started including their work in shows. And then Moneta Sleet, Jr., who was an Ebony photographer, another person I just, just--I just fell in love with his work, cared about what he was doing, and had a chance to meet him and spent a lifetime, the rest of his life, working with him. And all of these older guys--Bert Andrews, who was a theater photographer, he, he had--he did a book called 'In the Shadow of the Great White Way' ['In the Shadow of the Great White Way: Images from the Black Theatre,' Bert Andrews], and his was about black theater--his photographs were about black theater, curated a show about his work ['Scenes from the 20th Century Stage: Black Theatre in Photographs']. So--and then I decided to kind of look at--my mission was to, you know, capture all of these guys and--who all adopted me, you know as, as either, you know, like this person is gonna just care about their work and keep working with them, and I continued--we'd often meet on dinner, lunch, breakfast; and then I met Ellis Haizlip, and Ellis Haizlip had a TV show called 'Soul!'. I remembered meeting Ellis and just said, "You're the person who introduced me to all of these people on television." So then Ellis became a mentor. So I had these great mentors that helped shape my visual interest and to encourage me to keep pushing to get these projects done, which I didn't get any grants; I didn't have any major grants for any of the projects that I worked on. I--there was one photographer that--I was really interested in doing a book, it was called J.P.--his name was J- James Presley Ball, and he was a daguerreotypist, working in the 1840s, died in 1905 [sic.] in, in Hawaii; he started in Cincinnati [Ohio] and so he traveled out west.$$Can I get you just to say that word again?$$James Presley Ball; he was a daguerreotypist.$$And what's a daguerreotype?$$It was one--it was the first photography; it was the first visual image in terms of the first photograph, but it was on a plate, and James Presley Ball was one of the early daguerreotypists.$Let's go back to sort of a timeline approach. So, you're curating shows and you start focusing on more contemporary photographers--$$Um-hm.$$And then what do you--do, do you get that grant that you applied to for the New York Library [New York Public Library, New York, New York]?$$For the J.P. Ball [James Presley Ball] book--$$Got it (simultaneous).$$(Simultaneous) So I, I, I received the grant for the J.P. Ball book ['J.P. Ball, Daguerrean and Studio Photographer,' Deborah Willis], and then in '92 [1992], I was offered a position at the Smithsonian [Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.] to help develop an African American museum on the Mall [National Mall, Washington, D.C.]. Claudine Brown [Claudine K. Brown] was working at the Smithsonian at the time; I had met Claudine years ago when she was at the Brooklyn Museum [New York, New York], and she asked if I would--if I was interested in working with her and helping to develop an African American museum on the Mall.$$But was there any African American museum in the Smithsonian system?$$There--the only--there was one, it was the Anacostia Museum [Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture; Anacostia Community Museum, Washington, D.C.], it was a neighborhood museum; and what Claudine and others wanted to do was to have a national African American museum that would collect nationally, and to focus on African American history and culture. I--at the same time, on my other side, a lot of my artist friends would say, "Deb [HistoryMaker Deborah Willis], you need to start showing your work, start getting your work out there; I'm gonna--," (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) It's been ten, fifteen years.$$"I'm gonna submit your work to a show." So then--the National Black Arts Festival is really popular in, in, in supporting artists and showing art work, and so I had a show at, at the '92 [1992] National's- National Black Arts Festival, and I showed a lot of the quilts, and it was Young Hughley--he had a gallery there [Young Hughley Gallery, Atlanta, Georgia], and Jane Jackson Gallery [Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta, Georgia]; so I showed my work at two galleries during this time, and so a lot of people had a chance to see my work on the other side, you know; not just the books, but now here's Deb's visual images are coming out. So, I started continuing working with my, my work as an artist. A lot of the work was sold at--there, so it was really encouraging. And, and then I moved to Washington [D.C.]. I--you know, it was really hard to leave Schomburg [Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York, New York] and leave New York [New York] and--but I had another opportunity, and it just happened that way, and--$$Where did you move to?$$I moved to Washington to Southwest [Washington, D.C.], to the area near the water on G Street; is 277 G Street, Southwest. It was a great experience to, to have a different kind of local, walking to work and having to help develop a, a museum. And so--at the time, it was--Claudine hired--she hired me to work with collections, and another young woman, Jane Lusaka, to work with the publishing aspect of it. So, it just--worked as a small group, we--it was--we were very cautious, we shared a desk (laughter), we--you know, we worked together, and I traveled around the country looking at collections, and a lot of--a number of people believed in this idea of having an African American museum. We didn't pass through [U.S.] Congress one year, then Jesse Helms held it up another year, but we continued to work. And as a way to create a visibility, I worked with Claudine in, in developing a, a gallery in the Arts and Industry Building [Arts and Industries Building, Washington, D.C.] at the Smithsonian to create exhibitions, and one of the exhibitions that I created, one of the first exhibition was--it call--it was called--entitled 'Imagining Families: Images and Voices.' So, that was a way, I felt, with involve--bring people into the museum, into a museum space, and understanding how to collect--how to collect family images and what artists will do with family images, what we can do in terms of preserving the history. So it was a, a story about that, and so then I curated other shows for them, and just continued working at--another show was called 'Harlem and D.C. in the Thirties and Forties' ['Visual Journal: Harlem and D.C. in the Thirties and Forties'] and looking at [HistoryMaker] Gordon Parks and Morgan and Marvin Smith [Morgan Smith and Marvin Smith], and then a D.C. photographer, Robert MacNeil and the Scurlock Studios [sic. Scurlock Studio, Washington, D.C.]. So, looking at how important photography, photography studios were for, for two significant communities in, in America.