Dean’s Dialogue: Posing Beauty in African American Portraits: A Talk by Dr. Deborah Willis February 8, 2011
Dr. Deborah Willis, MacArthur fellow and chair of New York University’s photography department
“I was a student in the 70s,” said Willis in her opening remarks to the attendees of “Posing Beauty,” a Dean’s Dialogue hosted by the School of Art & Design. “I asked my professor ‘Where are the other images,’” of African Americans? “There were (those of) tenant farmers, of laborers and that’s fine.” But the range of images of African American life was woefully incomplete. Willis had a “curiosity of the lack of images of blacks.” Her professor suggested she search out photos that might tell a larger story.
Her book, “Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present,” is another turn in her investigation. “I found myself as a resource…I grew up in a beauty shop. The images for me are to open up the dialog– Sometimes an image is a story of desire, other times it’s a woman seeking the American Dream,” said Willis.
Willis is observant of “how women are always under surveillance…I’m always asking ‘How are these images used?’”
Among the photographs Willis showed were: a posting of run-away slave described as “rather good looking”; cinema stars like Josephine Baker; various looks of women working outside the home; studio portraits; and iconic shots of Issac Hayes, Malcolm X, Pam Grier and James Brown.
“Black beauty has been silenced,” said Willis. “Special issues (on African- American life) gives the public an opportunity for exchange,” she said “but I wish it didn’t have to be a special issue.”
“What I took away from this,” said fashion design student Michelle Richards, “is that when she was a student she asked: ‘Where are the black photographers and photographs?’ Too often students accept the lesson as fact rather than as an introduction, and then you take it further. This whole thing started as a research project. She took the initiative and researched the gap in her education.”