Portraits of Her People

Historian, photographer and Macarthur "genius," Deborah Willis documents the black experience

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Pictures were always part of her life. Her earliest memories are of standing beside her cousin in his darkroom and watching the images magically appear on the paper in the developing tray.

"My father — a policeman for 25 years — also had a passion for photography," said Deborah Willis, a Smithsonian art historian and photographer who was recently awarded a MacArthur "genius" fellowship. "He was an amateur, but a serious one. He took pictures of our family and of women in my mother's hair salon."

Her childhood home in North Philadelphia was always full of churchwomen who'd come to get their hair done, and to sit and chat, and her father often had his Rolleiflex camera at the ready.

"So, I grew up with this aspect of images and style. I learned a sense of framing and the beauty in pictures."

One day Willis got hold of a book called The Sweet Flypaper of Life that intrigued and inspired her. It was a narrative by Langston Hughes with black-and-white photographs by Roy DeCarava. It came out in 1955. My family had a copy in our house, and we all read it to tatters over the years. Hughes assembled DeCarava's pictures of life in Harlem and built a story around them, a story that quivered with immediacy, a story of families struggling to stay together, of youths gradually losing their energy and purpose on the hard streets of New York, of fights and parties, grief, and above all, the ineffably sweet moments that make human existence bearable.

Then, in 1969, Willis saw the "Harlem on My Mind" photography show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the first that depicted African-American family life and political and social history. Soon after, she began studying photography at the Philadelphia College of Art.

"I noticed that the history books we used had no pictures by black photographers," she said. "I decided to try to find them when I started working at the Schomburg [Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library] after I finished graduate school at Pratt in 1979."

The Schomburg was a revelation. It had a huge collection of pictures by black photographers, documenting many aspects of the world of African-Americans that were generally unknown to white Americans. But the work was cataloged by subject, not by photographer. Willis set herself to refiling and recategorizing the entire collection. "I wanted to give the photographers an identity," she said.

"There were a number of wonderful early daguerreotypes and tintypes by African-American photographers: James Presley Ball, who worked in Montana before the turn of the 20th century, and Augustus Washington, a man born in 1820 who took many pictures in New England including one of a young John Brown without the beard before he emigrated to Liberia. I found people all over the country, black photographers, making mostly portraits of black people but also some of white abolitionists." Incidentally, Willis first wrote about Augustus Washington in 1982. It was not until almost 20 years later that Washington was celebrated in an exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery (Smithsonian, May 1999).

In 1992 Willis moved to Washington, D.C. to help develop an African-American museum for the Smithsonian. She explored the possibility of putting such a museum on the Mall. But after months of searching out donors and rounding up collections, the project was turned down by Congress.


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