“On one occasion I stumbled upon THE SWEETFLYPAPER OF LIFE and proudly brought it home…. I was excited to see the photographs: it was the first book I had ever seen with ‘colored’ people in it – people that I recognized, people that reminded me of my own family…. The photographs spoke to me in a manner that I will never forget…. SWEETFLYPAPER spoke of pride in the African American family, good times and hard times…. SWEETFLYPAPER said to me that there was a place for black people’s stories. Their ordinary stories were alive and important and to be cherished…. For me a veil was lifted. I made it a point from that day in 1955 on to continue to look for books that were about black people and to look at photographs that told or reflected our stories.” i
Deborah Willis, PhD, MacArthur Fellow, photographer, scholar, historian and griot, is widely acknowledged as the doyen of Black Photography. Her work has uncovered a rich history of Black men and women who took up the camera to document their communities and a people as they transformed themselves. Our knowledge of the names, careers and the incredible images taken by Black photographers over the centuries would not be what it is without Deb Willis and her singular contributions. Her encouragement of new historians, artists and photographers has been instrumental to building a whole new field within art history and helping us all to better understand visual representation of the Black subject within popular culture. Recently, DDFR.TV asked Dr. Willis to comment on her work and the experiences that shaped her career:
DDFR.TV: Back when you were in college, could you ever have imagined that your work would have such a huge impact?
DW: I could go back to high school with that question, because it’s a sad experience. I think a lot of us, in terms of people of color, get bad advice from college counselors. I was told: “There’s no way you could go to college, no way you’re college material. You probably could be a bedpan nurse.” I remember walking away crying from the counselor’s office. I wanted to go to art school and there was no encouragement for me in high school. My father said that I could go to a junior college and there was a state junior college across the street from the art school I wanted to go to, Philadelphia College of Art. And so I went to the junior college and walked past the art school every day, for two years, saying: “I’m going to apply there, I’m going to get in there,” – that was the dream. And eventually I did.
When I was in college, there were only two black women in my program. I was told by one of the professors: “Oh, you’re taking up a man’s spot, a good man’s spot. All you’re going to do is get pregnant when you graduate and you’re going to have a kid and nothing’s going to happen with your career.” And I was (laughs), it’s really amazing, I just recently talked about this at a lecture, because I never even thought about the shame that happened when I got pregnant… Of course, he was right. I’m pregnant as soon as I graduated…and this is what happens to women. Women are told that: “you’re going to have a kid, your life is over, you’re not going to make art, you’re wasting our time, we can’t teach you.”
I was lucky to have some encouraging professors who were wonderful…Bea Morton, she was a sculptor and Ray Metzger. They were the ones that I looked up to because they were out in the field. They weren’t the teachers teaching and not making art. They were the teachers moving ahead in the world. That encouraged me and after I graduated, I applied for a job as a photo journalist at Newsweek, Time, the usual places, and they said: “Come back in 3 months.” Three months later, I was pregnant. I really had to deal with guilt about how I felt, about having a kid, finishing school and listening to the voices of the men, the power brokers: “You’re wasting our time.”
But I had the desire to continue. And after I had my son, I decided to apply to graduate school because I knew I needed to stay active in this academic art world. I was accepted to Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn NY, to get an MFA. While there, I created a body of photographic work. This was in the aftermath of the Black Arts Movement and people were still showing works by Black photographers in Black communities. I met artist Carrie Mae Weems at that time, who asked me to present work for a show she was curating in Los Angeles at the Brockman Gallery. So I had my first chance to show work professionally. I didn’t think about a future then. It was all in the present, just being out there, photographing, showing work and exchanging work in photography collectives, meeting other photographers…being a part of that community…in an artistic environment.
The week I graduated from Pratt, the day I was leaving, I just happened to look on a bulletin board and there was a job for a Photographic Specialist at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. I had visited the Schomburg in the early 1970s, saying at the time they needed a photo curator there to organize the photographs so that I could find the black photographers is was researching. So I applied for the position, and met Jean Blackwell Hudson, who was the chief curator, and Ruth Ann Stewart who understood and hoped that this young woman, me, who was a photographer, but who had never worked in the archives prior to that experience, would follow through on the mission of what a photo specialist was and they hired me. I commuted from Philadelphia to New York for 18 months; and I just started with filing the individual photographs by photographers. They were all there, like C.M. Beatty, J.P. Ball, Morgan and Marvin Smith, all of them were there.
I had read about Morgan and Marvin Smith when I was doing my initial research in 1972 and I wanted to meet them. One day, they walked into the Schomburg, these beautiful twin brothers, these men who were my heroes. But they walked in because I had said to Mrs. Hudson: “I really want to meet Morgan and Marvin Smith and Harlem photographer Austin Hanson.” And she says, “Oh, I’ll bring them by” and they walked in my office and I told them about my work and they were so thrilled. They didn’t believe anyone was interested in their photographs and they threw buckets of negatives and photographs out of the back window of the studio they had above the Apollo Theater. As a result of that experience, they became mentors to me and talked to me about photography. They encouraged me to keep working and I did my first book, Black Photographers 1840-1940: An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography in 1988.
Working with the photographs, meeting the photographers, curating shows at the Schomberg and then around the country, that’s how it went, every day. I was just living that day, that year, but not 25 years later. Never would I think that I’d have a book in 2000 on the history of black photographers, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present. And never would I ever dream that someone was actually watching my work and compiling information until I received the call about the MacArthur Genius Award in 2002. I didn’t even know that anyone was thinking that I had created a new field that was overlooked in the larger field of photography. That’s something that changed my life in terms of thinking about this work…what a way to say: “good job, girl.” That’s why I never think about the future, I just live for the day.
i From: Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography, ed. by Deborah Willis, (New York: The New Press, 1994), p.3ff