Deborah Willis (artist)

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Deborah Willis
Born (1948-02-05) February 5, 1948 (age 70)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
EducationPhiladelphia College of Art, Pratt Institute, City College of New York, George Mason University
Known forphotography, photography books
AwardsMacArthur Fellowship, Guggenheim Fellowship, Richard D. Cohen Fellow in African and African American Art

Deborah Willis (born February 5, 1948) is a contemporary African-American artist, photographer, curator of photography, photographic historian, author, and educator.[1] Among her awards and honors, she was a 2000 MacArthur Fellow.[2] She is currently Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at Tisch School of the Arts of New York University.[3]

Early life and education[edit]

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Willis is the mother of conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas.[1][4] Her father was a photographer, and her close familial ties are apparent in certain works that seem related to family members or occasions, such as Daddy's Ties: The Tie Quilt II (1992).

Wilis' 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;[5] and a Ph.D. from the Cultural Studies Program of George Mason University in 2001.[6]


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 exhibitions curator at the Center for African American History and Culture of the Smithsonian Institution for eight years.[1][6] 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.[7] She then joined the faculty of New York University.[1] 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."[8] 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,"[9] she survived a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2001.[10] 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 Present.[11] In 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.

Awards and honors[edit]

Willis has received numerous awards and honors, including:

Artistic and photographic works[edit]

As an artist and photographer, Willis is represented by Bernice Steinbaum Gallery in Miami[15] and Charles Guice Contemporary in Berkeley, California.[16] Her exhibitions have included:

Willis is also a quilter, also incorporating photographic images into her pieces. Daddy's Ties: The Tie Quilt II from 1992 (27 x 34"), for example, is a fabric collage with added button, tie clips, and pins forming "a supple, irregularly shaped memorial."[8] The work references multiple generations and genders, as it elicits memories of fathers teaching their sons, boys maturing into adult clothes and rituals, and women adjusting their husbands' knots. At the same time, however, the artist's cutting and reconfiguration of the ties raises the possibility that such nostalgic references might be outmoded or rejected. This multivalent collage "also memorializes black soldiers who fought in World War II," since Willis includes photos of soldiers on linen fabric collaged onto the tie fabric.[8] Willis's focus on the African-American experience is evident in Tribute to the Hottentot Venus: Bustle (1995), a fabric and photo linen collage (23 x 28") in a triptych format. Small images of Saartjie Baartman, the so-called "Hottentot Venus," appear in the left and right sections together with pieced fabric silhouettes of her body. The central image in the triptych is of a late 19th-century dress with prominent bustle, its shape emphasizing the buttocks. Willis explains that her use of quilting as a technique "reminds us who we are and who and what our ancestors have been to us in the larger society."[8]

Her quilts have been included in the following exhibits and catalogs:

  • "Story Quilts: Photography and Beyond", Black Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, 1999, Curated by photographer and installation artist Pat Ward Williams, the exhibition showcased the works of three African-American artists—Willis, Kyra E. Hicks and Dorothy Taylor.[22]
  • Tribute to the Hottentot Venus quilt, 1992.[23][24]

Curated exhibitions[edit]

Exhibitions that Willis has curated include:


  • Willis, Deborah; Barbara Krauthamer (2012). Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 978-1-43990-985-0.
  • Willis, Deborah; Hank Willis Thomas; Kalia Brooks (2009). Progeny: Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas. New York: Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University. ISBN 978-1-884919-23-7.
  • Willis, Deborah (2009). Posing Beauty: African American images from the 1890s to the present. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-06696-8.
  • Willis, Deborah; Emily Bernard (2009). Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 0393077470.
  • Willis, Deborah; Kevin Merida (2008). Obama: the historic campaign in photographs. New York: Amistad. ISBN 978-0-06-173309-3.
  • Willis, Deborah (2007). Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American portraits. Washington, DC: National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution. ISBN 978-1-58834-242-3.
  • Wallis, Brian; Deborah Willis (2005). African American Vernacular Photography: selections from the Daniel Cowin Collection. New York: International Center of Photography. ISBN 3-86521-225-5.
  • Willis, Deborah (2005). Family History Memory: recording African American life. New York: Hylas. ISBN 1-59258-086-6.
  • Willis, Deborah; Sean Moore; Karen Prince (2004). Black: a celebration of a culture. Irvington, NY: Hylas. ISBN 1-59258-051-3.
  • Lewis, David L; Deborah Willis (2003). A Small Nation of People: W.E.B. Du Bois and African-American portraits of progress. New York: Amistad. ISBN 0-06-052342-5.
  • Willis, Deborah; Carla Williams (2002). The Black Female Body: a photographic history. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 1-56639-928-9.
  • Crouch, Stanley; Deborah Willis (2002). One Shot Harris: the photographs of Charles "Teenie" Harris. New York: Harry N. Abrams. ISBN 0-8109-3272-5.
  • Willis, Deborah (2000). Reflections in Black: a history of Black photographers, 1840 to the present. New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-04880-2.
  • Cottman, Michael H; Deborah Willis; Linda Tarrant-Reid (1996). The Family of Black America. New York: Crown Trade Paperbacks. ISBN 0-517-88822-X.
  • Willis, Deborah; Jane Lusaka (1996). Visual Journal: Harlem and D.C. in the thirties and forties. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. ISBN 1-56098-691-3.
  • Cottman, Michael H; Deborah Willis (1995). Million Man March. New York: Crown Trade Paperbacks. ISBN 0-517-88763-0.
  • Willis, Deborah; Jane Lusaka (1994). Imagining Families: images and voices. Washington, DC: National African American Museum, a Smithsonian Institution Project. ISBN 1-885892-00-4.
  • Willis, Deborah (1994). Picturing Us: African American identity in photography. New York: New Press. ISBN 1-56584-107-7.
  • Driskell, David C; David L Lewis; Deborah Willis (1994). Harlem Renaissance: art of Black America. New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, Abradale Press. ISBN 0-8109-8128-9.
  • Willis, Deborah (1993). J.P. Ball, daguerrean and studio photographer. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8153-0716-0.
  • Willis-Braithwaite, Deborah; Rodger C Birt (1993). VanDerZee, photographer, 1886–1983. New York: H.N. Abrams. ISBN 0-8109-3923-1.
  • Willis, Deborah (1992). Early Black Photographers, 1840-1940: 23 postcards. New York: New Press. ISBN 1-56584-007-0.
  • Willis, Deborah; Lorna Simpson (1992). Lorna Simpson. San Francisco: Friends of Photography. ISBN 0-933286-60-0.
  • Willis, Deborah; Howard Dodson (1989). Black Photographers Bear Witness: 100 years of social protest. Williamstown, MA: Williams College Museum of Art. ISBN 0-913697-09-5.
  • Willis-Thomas, Deborah (1989). An Illustrated Bio-bibliography of Black Photographers, 1940–1988. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-8389-X.
  • Driskell, David C; David L Lewis; Deborah Willis Ryan (1987). Harlem Renaissance: art of Black America. New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, Harry N. Abrams. ISBN 0-8109-1099-3.
  • Willis-Thomas, Deborah (1985). Black Photographers, 1840–1940: an illustrated bio-bibliography. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-9147-7.


  1. ^ a b c d The HistoryMakers. Deborah Willis biography, ArtMakers, June 27, 2007. Accessed August 1, 2009.
  2. ^ a b John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. MacArthur Fellows. July 2000. Archived 2007-09-29 at the Wayback Machine. Accessed August 1, 2009.
  3. ^ New York University. Maurice Kanbar Institute. Photography & Imaging. Accessed August 1, 2009.
  4. ^ a b Dalkey, Victoria. Mother, son: studies in ancestry and kinship. Sacramento Bee, July 31, 2009. Accessed August 1, 2009.
  5. ^ Deborah Willis Curriculum Vitae – March, 2013.
  6. ^ a b c Deborah Willis résumé. Bernice Steinbaum Gallery. Accessed August 1, 2009.
  7. ^ Duke University. Lehman Brady Visiting Joint Chair Professor in Documentary Studies and American Studies at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Accessed August 2, 2009.
  8. ^ a b c d Farrington, Lisa E. (2005). Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 210. ISBN 978-0-19-516721-4.
  9. ^ New York University. Faculty directory. Photography & Imaging. Deborah Willis, Ph.D. Accessed August 1, 2009.
  10. ^ a b Royster-Hemby, Christina. "Reflected in the lens. After years of chronicling the African-American experience, photographer and former MICA professor Deborah Willis turns the camera on herself". Baltimore City Paper, March 30, 2005. Accessed August 2, 2009.
  11. ^ Gonzalez, David (February 11, 2014). "African-American History, From Family Albums to Museum Walls". The New York Times. Retrieved May 17, 2014.
  12. ^ John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Deborah Willis. Accessed August 2, 2009.
  13. ^ Associated Press, "12 get grants for efforts on race - Anita Hill among honorees given $50,000 each". Washington Post, April 16, 2005.
  14. ^ "Infinity Awards 1985–1995", International Center of Photography. August 1, 2014.
  15. ^ Bernice Steinbaum Gallery. Artist's page. Accessed August 1, 2009.
  16. ^ Charles Guice Contemporary. Deborah Willis. Accessed August 1, 2009.
  17. ^ Bernice Steinbaum Gallery. Exhibitions 2005-2009. Accessed August 4, 2009.
  18. ^ "Progeny: Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas". Miriam & Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University. Accessed August 2, 2009.
  19. ^ Martell, Chris. "Beautiful dreamers - photographer focuses on the threads of beauty that run through the African-American community". Wisconsin State Journal, February 15, 2003.
  20. ^ Schmitz-Rizzo, Margaret. "Kemper Museum displays artist's keepsakes". Kansas City Star, July 5, 2000.
  21. ^ Fox, Catherine. Art review. Atlanta Journal and Constitution, August 28, 1992.
  22. ^ GEORGE, LYNELL (July 17, 1995). "Patchwork Stories: By Combining Photography and Quilting, Three Artists Create a Unique Medium for Commenting on the Issues of the Past--and Present". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 24, 2016.
  23. ^ Williams, edited by Deborah Willis; with research assistance by Carla (2010). Black Venus, 2010 : they called her "Hottentot". Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press. pp. 90–91. ISBN 1439902046.
  24. ^ Wayne, Tom Beck, Cynthia (1996). Visual griots : works by four African-American photographers : Cary Beth Cryor, Stephen Marc, William Earle Williams, Deborah Willis. Baltimore: Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery, University of Maryland Baltimore County. ISBN 1888378018.
  25. ^ John-Hall, Annette. Light and shadow. While Smithsonian curator Deborah Willis is proud of "Reflections in Black," an exhibition of African American photography, suffering clouds her satisfaction. On opening night, her beloved nephew - who helped with the research - was killed in Philadelphia. Philadelphia Inquirer, April 2, 2000.
  26. ^ "Traveling exhibition venues (for Reflections in Black)". Archived from the original on April 15, 2003. Retrieved September 7, 2017.. Accessed August 2, 2009.
  27. ^ Boxer, Sarah. "Photography review; Black Photographers Who Are Trying To Get Blackness Right", The New York Times, November 9, 2001. Accessed August 2, 2009.
  28. ^ Fraser, C. Gerald. "Harlem curator helps redefine photography", The New York Times, August 6, 1989. Accessed August 2, 2009.
  29. ^ Smith, Virginia. Art review - "Constructed Images: New Photography." Atlanta Journal and Constitution, October 31, 1990.
  30. ^ Hagen, Charles. "Review/photography; How racial and cultural differences affect art", The New York Times, August 23, 1991. Accessed August 2, 2009.

Further reading[edit]

  • Headley, Jennifer (2006). "Deborah Willis-Kennedy". In Warren, Lynne. Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography. New York: Routledge. pp. 1687–1689. ISBN 1-57958-393-8.

External links[edit]