Portraits of Her People

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

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.

"We have the Anacostia Museum, but that's community-based. This was to be a national museum." As a curator for the Smithsonian's Center for African-American History and Culture and the Anacostia, Willis continues to develop exhibitions that help keep an African-American presence on the Mall.

Last winter the career of Deborah Willis came to a climax with the opening of an important show that she curated, "Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present," featuring some 300 pictures by 120 photographers. The opening on February 3 was to be perhaps the proudest night of her life. It turned out to be the saddest. "The day before the opening," she told me, "my nephew was killed. He was on his way here to see the show, but he stopped off in Philadelphia to see his mother."

With some school friends, the 27-year-old Songha Thomas Willis dropped by a nightclub. He was held up in the parking lot, robbed and shot to death.

"This was a nonviolent kid. He loved the world. He went to private schools; he was a kid who was protected, and he didn't know what was happening. He did everything the guy wanted, gave him his money. "I want to use some of the MacArthur money to do a project about gun violence. You know, my father never used his gun all the 25 years he was a cop."

She's concerned about her son, Hank Sloane Thomas. "He's been at New York University and now he wants to drive across the country to California, and I want to protect him, the only male child left in my family. But I have to let him go. He says, 'Mom, I'll call you from every city.' ...You have to let them go."

Though freed from money worries with the MacArthur grant of $100,000 a year for five years, Willis, 52, is busier than ever. In addition to her Smithsonian duties, she travels weekly to North Carolina to teach a course in visual images in popular culture at Duke University.

Of her own photography work, she says, "I use color for family snaps, but all my work is in black and white. Color doesn't have the soul, you don't put yourself into it. I find black-and-white fascinating because it has that sense of intimacy. You look at the gray tones, you read the images for yourself."

Willis plans to document in photographs the unsung work that women do in cities around the country. For instance, a current project involves taking photographs of women in hair salons.

One of her favorite pictures is the big crowd shot on the cover of the "Reflections in Black" catalog. Taken in 1910 by A. P. Bedou, a New Orleans photographer, it shows a group of people listening to a speech by Booker T. Washington.

"I found this in 1974 when I was starting my research, this celebration of an event in life. Men looking up at the camera, they all wear hats, everyone wore hats then, and a few women with those big wide-brimmed hats. It's very hard to make a strong picture out of a crowd. But this one stays with you."

She is right. The exhibition and its 348-page catalog have a lot of pictures that stay with me. "Reflections in Black" travels to Albany, New York, in January, and will tour the country for the next two years. The photographs span from slavery to the civil rights era to the present day. The early images depict a world that I knew little of, for it was largely invisible to white America: daguerreotypes of black men and women, some of them in their coffins; wedding portraits by James VanDerZee, now famous; a typewriting club; a string band with zither and banjo; a Tuskegee commencement; distinguished black leaders like Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. DuBois.

Moving into the 1960s, we see the marches, the rallies, the dramatic high points of the civil rights movement, and candid shots of Malcolm X (one with Muhammad Ali), H. Rap Brown, James Baldwin, the great saxophonist John Coltrane and a striking portrait of a white-robed Muslim woman in Brooklyn.

Many pictures are not about politics or art. They are simply a record of black life through the years. Roland Charles provides a charming photograph of a woman having her hair done, taken in a mirror. The woman is ducking away in shy laughter as the beautician looks on amused. Or Sholumbo Playing Cards with his Grandpa, in which a small boy and an old man engage in a serious contest on a makeshift table.

A world is captured here, and as Willis says, with black-and-white you have to go in and become part of it.

Don't ask me to pick a favorite picture (as I asked Willis to), but as I turn the page I see a candid shot called Speedo and Smiley in Harlem, 1969, by Joe Harris. The two men are meeting on an empty sidewalk among some cookie-cutter apartment buildings. The urban neighborhood is stark, almost grim, but the friends are laughing as they shake hands, glad to see each other, and you have to smile, too, for the sheer joy in their faces.

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