A portrait of a driven 'genius'

CATCHING UP WITH ... DEBORAH WILLIS

By piecing together a history of African-American photography, a Smithsonian curator developed a close-up look at black life -- and won a MacArthur grant.

June 25, 2000|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,STAFF WRITER

For 25 years, Deborah Willis pored over newspapers, scoured archives, consulted books, drew up lists. Like a child obsessed with a scrapbook, she was hunting for photographs that would illustrate a story.

She was determined to tell -- and show -- the history of African-American photography. She knew that documenting this story would shed light on another: that of African-American life.

In a society long dominated by whites, both stories had been at times willfully twisted, truncated or just forgotten. By gathering hundreds of photographs of African-Americans taken by African-Americans -- some of the images well-known, others virtually unseen -- Willis would help add texture to the tale. Recording the identity of the men and women who took the pictures would add complexity and nuance, as well.

The story of African-American photography includes, for example, Jules Lion. The French-born artist moved to New Orleans and in 1841, one year after the invention of the process, opened a daguerreotype studio. Prentice Herman Polk, born in 1898, photographed former slaves living in Tuskegee, Ala. Louise Ozell Martin in the 1960s captured images of innocence in her pictures of children and of heartbreak in her photographs of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral. Linda Day Clark in 2000 shows us the artfulness of ordinary life through color photographs of Baltimore's North Avenue.

Willis, a photographer herself, gathered more than 300 images for a most impressive scrapbook -- the exhibit, "Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present," at the Smithsonian Institution's Arts and Industries Building in Washington through July 16. There also is a book of the same title published by W.W. Norton.

Together they form the culmination of more than two decades of research, document 100 years of African-American photography and illuminate a chapter of American history.

"I put my own photography on the back burner because I decided to focus on finding and documenting -- taking a more inclusive look -- at black photography," Willis says. "I knew there were black photographers out there, that's why I kept looking, sacrificing, in some ways, my own work."

Honored, but 'Why me?'

This month, the John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation recognized Willis' efforts when it named her one of 25 recipients of a "genius grant." The award means that Willis, 52, curator of exhibitions at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, will receive $500,000 over a period of five years to use in any way she chooses.

"She is the person who has invented the art history of African-American photography almost single-handedly," says Lowery Sims, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, an institution dedicated to collecting and presenting contemporary African-American art. "All those years that she has spent doing archival work were also spent trying to document a part of society whose image has been absent from the histories."

Though the curator/photographer was informed days ago that she was a MacArthur grant recipient, she still seems stunned by the news. She sits in her office -- a small space filled with stacks of books, prints and museum catalogs piled every which way -- and shakes her head in disbelief. "I still think, 'Why me?' I mean, that's what I thought when they called me. 'Why me?' "

Willis, who has a son and is married to Winston Kennedy, chairman of Howard University's art department, is known for her generosity, persistence and attention to detail. She is the sort of museum administrator who holds up meetings to put more visitor guides at the exhibit entrance and the sort of curator who clips and mails reviews to the artists in her shows.

"Way back in the early, early part of my career she noticed my work," says Baltimore photographer Carl Clark. "She made a major difference in my career, and she has done that for hundreds of photographers. When she moves, she carries the whole field -- she is that kind of person." (See Page 7f for an article about Clark and his photos)

In the beginning

For nearly as long as she can remember, Willis has been aware of the power of visual images. At age 7, she was entranced by a child's storybook, "The Sweet Flypaper of Life," written by Langston Hughes and illustrated with photographs by Roy DeCarava. "That is when I began thinking about images. I said then, 'I want to make photographs.'"

Another epiphany came in 1969, when she attended the landmark exhibition "Harlem on My Mind" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show was one of the first to showcase the African-American experience through photographs. "That was it," says Willis. "That was the show that shaped my interest."

Her father, a policeman who also had an interest in photography, had other ideas, however. He urged his daughter to earn a business degree. But after two years at a Philadelphia junior college, Willis moved to New York and began to build a photography portfolio.

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