Deb Willis is an artist, photographer, author, and educator, and she is one of the nation's leading historians and curators of African American photography. 

At NYU, she is a University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging in NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Willis is widely published; her most recent book is The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship (NYU Press, 2021).

In addition to making art, writing, and teaching, she has served as a consultant to museums, archives, and educational centers. She has also appeared and consulted on media projects, including documentary films such as Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People; Question Bridge: Black Males, a transmedia project, which received the ICP Infinity Award 2015; and American Photography, a PBS Documentary. 

Since 2006, she has co-organized thematic conferences exploring “Black Portraitures,” focusing on imaging the Black body. She holds honorary degrees from Pratt Institute and the Maryland Institute, College of Art. She is currently researching two projects, on photography and the Black Arts Movement, and artists reimaging history.

In the reckoning with the still-pervasive racism within America, Willis’s work confronts and upends our comprehension of the past and expands our capacity to understand the current moment.

She is also a contributor to the forthcoming Are the Arts Essential?, an anthology of major American artists, scholars, and funders who contemplate this question, based on a multiyear series of symposia convened by the Brademas Center (NYU Press, February 2022)

Full Transcript

PA System [00:00:00] This is West 8th Street, New York University.

Announcer [00:00:14] From New York University, you're listening to Conversations, hosted by President Andy Hamilton. In each episode, Andy talks insight, inquiry and imagination with a leading mind from the NYU community.

President Hamilton [00:00:33] Hello, everyone. Today we welcome a renowned photographer, writer, curator and historian who has changed the way we see and understand Black representation in images. Professor Deborah Willis. At NYU, Deb Willis is a university professor. She is chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging in NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, and she is the director of NYU Center for Black Visual Culture and Institute for African American Affairs. She is a remarkable person who has been recognized widely over the years. She is the recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships. She has published numerous books. She's been featured in or curated exhibitions around the world, and she's appeared in and consulted on award winning documentaries. In 2020, she received the award for Outstanding Service to Photography from the Royal Photographic Society in London. Deb, it is wonderful to have you on our podcast today. Thank you so much for being with us.

Professor Willis [00:02:01] Thank you. It's really a wonderful opportunity to be here for me to be with you. So it's great to have this conversation.

President Hamilton [00:02:09] I wanted to begin with that most general of questions of how—it's a question that I think our students ask us quite often. How did you discover? How did you find your life's work, because you had a truly multi-faceted and pioneering career. It includes the roles of artist, writer, educator, curator, archivist and historian. So the question to you is how early in your life did you know that the this medium, these media would be your calling? And what was it about the world of pictures and portraits and taking pictures and portraits that spoke to you most and led you into this life and this career that you've been so brilliant at.

Professor Willis [00:03:15] It's really fascinating and a great question to think about, which I have not really kind of put together in one sentence. But I think there is a lot of... I grew up in North Philadelphia. I grew up with a large extended family, 50 first cousins. My mother had 13 brothers and sisters. My father had 10 brothers and sisters. My father married my mom after when he was in the war in World War Two, but he had photographs. He loved photography and spending time with my father as a as a young girl, I was fascinated with the fact that he was interested in photography and documenting everything. But also we had, my sister and I, we were 18 months apart, but we had chores every weekend. But before we had to, before we could do any of the fun things, we had to go to the library to pick a book to read for the week. And I could not read some of the books that I was interested in, but I was interested in the visual books. I was interested in picture books, and I really believe early on the public library shaped my life. I also my mom had a beauty shops. I grew up in her beauty shop and there were magazines like Look, Ebony, Jet, Tan, and all of the magazines from Black magazines to National Geographic to white press magazines. So I grew up with all of this stimulation the stimulating images not only from putting the images in my father of my father's photographs in the family album, but also looking at the women who visited my mother's beauty shop every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. And so I think that I grew up looking at these images and feeling that I wanted to be a part of it, and I recall when I was probably around 10 or 11, one of our neighbors was this was a photojournalist, and he was in the war with my father. He was a photographer. And I said I wanted to become a photographer, and that's something that that was not something that anyone encouraged, you know? But there is something I knew I wanted to be a part of.


President Hamilton [00:05:46] Now it's wonderful to hear the things that inspired you and of course, it's music to all our ears to know that it was books to know that it was the public library and the critical role that books played, but also to to to think about the role that chores, you know what are chores, they are, discipline. They are knowing that you have to do some jobs and get them done and then go and read before you can get on to the fun things in life. And it is. But of course, those are the fun things, discovering the joy in work. And Deb, in an interview that you gave to NYU News a little while ago, you said that one of the questions you asked your professors in college was why there were no Black photographers in the history books. And I, you also described how a key first project was was looking for Black photographers and their contributions over the centuries in American cultural life. And so I'd love to hear from you about how you approached that challenge, that undertaking of of bringing the rich history of Black photographers and photography into the public consciousness.

Professor Willis [00:07:15] It's really an important point when I think about absence and sitting in the classroom and looking at the photographers that we visited every week in terms of going to galleries and slide lectures and all of the experience that I that I had in the classroom and the only images that I saw of what people were stoop labor that they were, they were laborers. And yes, that is a part of Black culture is work. But I thought that where are the the breadth of the images since I was looking for counter images and then I was also looking for photographers, Black photographers. I knew that Gordon Parks because, I knew of Gordon Parks, because I grew up looking at Life magazine. And I asked my one of my professors and she said, "great question. Right. Why don't you write a paper about it, do do some research, look for the images. I felt the same way about women photographers, so I think that you should do the paper, do a paper." But I'm in art school and I... Not the training of a historian. Not the training of a literary scholar. So I'm a second year student in art school and I decided, OK, I'm going to take this on. And I really love the fact that I'm a researcher and not the traditional researcher. And there were open stacks in the libraries at Philadelphia and at Temple and at the college that I attended, in the Philadelphia Free Library. But so I used to go into and because of segregation, there were magazines and city directories that were asterisked for colored signs so that they were all segregated, divided. So I decided to go to the Black press and look on microfilm and look for photographers who advertised their their studios. I look for...And I didn't even know how I was doing this, and I just collected names. I found about when I first started, it was probably maybe about 250 names. And I looked, made a list. Geographical locations, decided to write to Gordon Parks in 1974. I wrote to him, You know, and I wrote to five photographers who were still activeas journalists. But Gordon was the first one who responded. And he said to me and he wrote, Deb was Debbie Willis. You know, Debbie, please come and visit me. I live at U.N. Plaza. And I visited him and he entered into my life. He stayed in my life until 2006, till the end of his life. Yeah, but the fact is that. He knew that I had a story that I needed to explore. I knew that I had a story that I didn't even know how to tell, but I knew that one, I had questions. And so after visiting Gordon Parks, I created an outline that my son, he discovered somewhere down the line that I wrote a proposal to my to the chair of the Department for an independent study project to spend time researching finding the photographs in some of the Black press in the newspapers. And then I wrote to historical societies in the cities and also in different places around the country. Some of them didn't even know that they had the photographs. I visited the Schomburg Center at the time didn't even know that that would that was going to be my dream job. My second dream job. So I found photographs and I connected the names with the photographers and so the photographs with the photographers. And then I started creating a way to think about this Black collective vision that was not ... It included, of course, protests, but it included representative images of Black people that told a story that was new and and it's still new.

President Hamilton [00:11:42] Yeah, it's fascinating, Deb, to hear you talk about the role of discovery, of discovery, of of work, of bodies of work, of photographers, Black photographers. And you must have spent a very large amount of of of your life in archives and thumbing through albums. And it was fascinating earlier on to hear you talk about the role that your father and his experience in World War II and and the photographs that he brought back from that experience, the role that that played early in your life and inspiring you into this work. And I think we see that very much in your new book. And let me just tell everyone the title of steps new book is The Black Civil War soldier with a subtitle, A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship. And I think this new book very much is an invitation for all of us into an American past that has not been readily visible, that's been excused, obscured or in some cases, erased. And this work appears to have surprised many of its readers for what it shows about the role the important role of Black participants in this much documented war--a war that you point out is the first to be captured extensively in photographs. And so just now coming to that, that part of your life is delving into archives and albums,particularly for the new book, what surprised you most? And were there unexpected findings that that sudden collections or albums unexpectedly changing your perception or your understanding of that war and of the United States, our country during those years?

Professor Willis [00:13:51] Yeah,  just thinking about that research started when I was a kid and when I was in high school, never knew the Black soldiers civil war soldiers existed. We only knew that Abraham Lincoln freed Black people. And so I was curious about finding images. When I started the research, I would find photographs of Black men and Civil War soldier uniforms and time pass from the 60s and the 70s. And then I wanted to understand that these are people who saw themselves as citizens and they were denied citizenship. But they also understood that they needed to fight as well and to find the story. And I wanted to have the visual experience of looking for what it meant to be free, what it meant to have a desire to be free. And I thought about how the photographer's studio could reflect that. And when I discovered the photographs that were in the Library of Congress, at the Schomburg Center, Historical Societies in Temple University, the blocks and collection also going to Boston, just traveling around the country looking for images. And I wanted to look, of course, in the the northern and the southern states. But I also wanted to see what it was, how how the photographer, the subjects, the soldiers, when they... I wanted to see information about what it felt like to put on the uniform when they stood in front of the backdrop with an American flag and land in the front and the sense of pride and a sense of a future. And what I noticed in looking at the photographs and then I began to read the diaries of some of the soldiers. So growing up, we're hearing that and people still didn't still believe that Black people couldn't read or write. And that's that was true, it was illegal to teach Black people to, to read or to write. But there were people who could and they were able to tell their story. So I began to read the diaries of some of the of some of the soldiers who just woke up one morning raining. You know what we ate? They talked about what they ate, but then they talked about what it meant to put the uniform on and then finding photographs. Finding some, unfortunately, some of the the dead soldiers where their images of their family members were in their pockets. So when I think about their their sense of duty and their dream life for their future that they believe there was a Black future of freedom. And that's what I felt that these photographs needed to tell, and I really think there was a school in Philadelphia for a military school for for colored troops. Never knew this, walked past the building All my life and to see there's a photograph of the soldier standing, standing outside, waiting to enter, to take classes. And so this traveling around, going to sites, looking at military sites and in camps and and I really believe and in my sense of storytelling, that it was part of my interest in getting to the deeper story about Black men and women. And what I discovered was Charlotte Fort and her diary. She was a teacher from Philadelphia, traveled to South Carolina to teach newly freed children. But her reading her diary, she... Colonel Shaw in Boston, she met him. She took him to a praise house session. She wrote about that experience and I love the aspect of the women's stories. And then the fact is that how food was different types of foods were preserved during that time. And then to find out that there were nine surgeons that Black surgeons that were a part of this history, they're probably more. But what I found in terms of the time for my research with the book was that these surgeons that some of them travel to Toronto, to Canada or to Iowa to study medicine. Some who were born enslaved and some were born free. But what I found that this complex story, this became much more complex because of the desire for freedom and the desire for a range of people from men and women to teach men how to write to sign for their, for their their pay and sometimes their pay was not equal pay. I love the fact that mothers wrote to to President Lincoln-- I'm giving you my son. I expect you to take care of him. And mothers were really forceful in the voice of Black women. And so those are the stories that really excited me. They they felt like the way that I want. I didn't want to tell the story of the, you know, of course it was a lot of death in terms of the the health care of some of the of the men. And but I wanted to tell the story that that was kind of a story that that surprised everyone who is going to read the book, that there were people who were enslaved who help other people escape slavery. But I also wanted to just create a way that preserves the joy that people had in sending a letter to their husband, a woman, a wife I'm sending you a button. And when you put place the button in your shirt, I want you to remember me. And then another mother said, Remember you have children, send money to our children. And then the difficult stories of of the women who were left because their husbands fought, left to fight for the war. But they decided that they were abused by their owners and the mistresses and the quote slave masters. But they were they were abused and they they sent letters to their husband through a scribe or to someone else through someone else about their stories. So when I think about what I discovered, there were so many wonderful discoveries, but the an open discussion about Black love. Romantic love family love was a discovery that I rarely could find in books about Black Civil War soldiers.

President Hamilton [00:21:09] Yeah, Deb that's fascinating. The power of image, the power of the photograph and you know, you describe two ways in which it  shows itself one in love and and the demonstration and the sending of messages of love. But as you said, also in political, in political inspiration and activism for freedom and  the desire and the goal that there will be a free country and I'd love to explore, you know, you are describing in your new book and you just talked through, you know  the way in which you discovered those photographs and obviously some would be well known and much publicized published photographs, but others would be, as you said, just those photographs found in the wallets occasionally, sadly on the bodies of killed soldiers, of of of family. Now we are. In ...I was going to say 2021, 2022. We are in 2022 and we are in a world where everyone. It's a photographer. Everyone has a smartphone. Everyone has hundreds, thousands of photographs uploaded into the cloud. How do you see the role of the image in both of those dimensions as expressions of love and the communication of love, but perhaps even more significantly today as as a force for political activism and change, one thinks about that incredibly powerful photograph of the full face of George Floyd and the way in which that image has has now entered all of our consciousness. That the modern world where everyone engages in photography into a huge extent as it as it has evolved from a world as you described, where actually very few people had access to to black and white photography, let let alone the things that we can do now with with an iPhone.

Professor Willis [00:23:32] Yeah, it's really important to think about as a teacher, as a chair who's encouraging people to use that photograph and that photographic image to tell the story to tell their stories. But reproducing today in terms of looking at images, the stories that the students are experiencing through the iPhone and the iPhone is is part of that story, But I think it's intentionality, the intent of what people are trying to tell today, young people who are making images, they want to tell their stories in different ways. And as I always see photography as text and that visual experience, when we one day I walk from 14th to Houston to experience what what it meant, and I asked my students to do the same, how many images did they see. What what effect did they have on them in terms of how to see? And one person says I saw a hundred images in a 10 block period, and the experience that I had changed my understanding of one of body culture changed my understanding of music, changed my understanding of of different experiences. So what I what I found just fascinating. What I find fascinating still now in terms of looking at everyone says Yes, I have a camera, but now everyone has a voice. And I believe that the important aspect of having the cameras is also having a voice and having that sense of an exchange. So we've been silenced. A lot of people have been silenced in terms of their desires of what they want to say, not in terms of looking at abuse, but just in terms of looking at the inner self. And I believe that having the opportunity to have a camera is to create a narrative, to create a narrative of joy, to create a narrative of reflection. And and if it's in a museum or it's if it's in the phone or we can hold back and look at it often and have those those moments of joy and reflection at the same time. And that's something that I...why I believe that, you know, the technology of photography, the new technology of of how we think about memorabilia it's constant and it's growing and it's reassuring. And yes, and I'm not denying that there is some difficult times that that we are all experiencing. But the fascinating aspect of what I've learned, like this week, I've heard of 10 wonderful people dying who were artists. But the fact that their life was photographed and that we have experienced it on the news, on social media and we're reliving the life of a number of people who passed away. And, you know, from Bell Hooks to Sidney Poitier to Greg Tate and the their stories about representation was relived and we're reliving and we're reminded of the importance of what their lives contributed to changing America.

President Hamilton [00:27:05] I'd love to dig a little deeper with you as a teacher, as a distinguished professor in the greatest school of the arts in the world, as far as I'm concerned. And how do you define that power of an image that we know an image is worth a thousand words? We all know that expression. What is it about the the impact, the neuronal, the neuronal connections that are made by an image that gives it such power?

Professor Willis [00:27:42] I think that it's reflexive in many ways when we see an image and we see something that that can create a narrative and an imagined narrative as well. So I think that I see images as not only magical, but also it really sparks the imagination. And when I when I see, when you think about the sense of reimagining and visionary moments when we see that that phrase a picture is worth a thousand words, it is because it's coming out from within our own experiences. So that's where the imaginary comes alive. And whatever happens with those images  it has the ability to spark and create ways for us to evolve and in different ways. And I swear I see that that exchange happens when looking at images.

President Hamilton [00:28:49] And in many ways there are so many dimensions to photography and the the image, and it can be formal. One thinks of wedding photographs and passport photographs. It can be esthetic. It can be a documentary. It can be journalistic. And it can also be very much a dimension of activism. The power of image and activism and I mentioned that incredible full face image of George Floyd. I'd love to get your thoughts and the way in which you engage students, but also hear from them about the use of image, the use of image in different ways of affecting society, of changing society.

Professor Willis [00:29:39] Well, when you think about, well, from my perspective, the Civil Rights movement and the photography during the Civil Rights movement helped shape us to understand laws and rights and understanding the politics of the time. And when I when I think about how using the aspect of victimization, you know, heroic images, the viciousness of racism, how is it documented? How do you tell that story when you can't just, you know, you see it now because of the photographic moment, but you just can't in terms of writing it on paper, can't feel that sense of emotion, but the photograph helps create that and helps you reimagine that moment. When I think about Fannie Lou Hamer and images of her in Mississippi standing on the land and land that she worked and she was abused and she was taken away from her. But to think about what we can imagine with the photograph that when you see it of someone posed, we can see the dignity of a person. We can see the pride. We can also see the success. We can also experience the beauty of what they hope for. And I think hope has a lot to do with a lot of the images from images today that some of the young people who are creating with protest images where they're hoping for a new future, hoping for a change, hoping that they can have a voice in creating a safe society. And that's what I'm hoping working with my students as they they have images of looking at their own lives, their family lives, they're looking at second generation first going back to different parts of their countries as migrants and migration movements. But they what I know that I'm really encouraged by, by the students I've worked with is that they want to tell a story. And they want to. They're not just looking at quote abstraction in terms of like, I want to just take this and create a really beautiful shape and which is fine, but they want to create. They want to shape the society through their photographs. And that's what I see them creating.

President Hamilton [00:32:25] And in a pathbreaking school like Tisch, are you seeing in young artists ways in which the medium of photography is being pushed into directions into into mechanisms that that have not previously been seen of a new and exciting applications of photography that that we're beginning to develop?

Professor Willis [00:32:53] Yeah. Having the opportunity to see young students work today well where they are asking questions, asking difficult questions about not only themselves, but the way that about their own lives. But they're also waging war against images that they didn't like in the past that they they experience there. They are basically obsessed with telling a different story. I have a student who is, she's wonderful. She's making a hoop skirt with Polaroid images, and she wants, she is really looking for ways to retell a story about the importance of the immediacy of photography like Polaroid. And how do we tell the story about Polaroid? Unfortunately, Polaroid is no longer in existence. But she's finding ways to create those images, and she's using fashion to tell the story and having the fashion locate her body in a way of walking down the street to engage people in discussion about body image, about storytelling, about protests. But using the and this is a way photographers use to get people to come into their studios in the 19th century. They had placards and carrying in front of them. She's using not only the the images of her own body and the images that she's making, but she's also looking for ways that people have to study. She's giving people an an opportunity to have a conversation about making images. So they're the range of images about the human condition, the way the people are talking in my classes's really exciting.

President Hamilton [00:34:55] Well, it's wonderful to hear you describe Polaroid because it of course reminds us that in those earlier days, the intersection of your world, the photography of the artist and my world, the world of chemistry, the chemistry of Polaroid, the chemistry of the silver halogen process is  intimately linked to the power of photography. It takes a little deviation in the world of digital imagery, but it's still a very important part of the of the connection between the arts and the sciences, and very real and direct ways. Deb we're coming towards the end of our time. And I'd love to hear, and I know, those listening to us would love to hear what what are your new projects? I understand that you're you've got a couple of projects on the boil at the moment. One on photography in the Black arts movement. Another on the way in which artists re-imagine history. I'd love to finish with some thoughts from you on why, why you are attracted. What is it that attracts you to those subjects and and how you see that new work evolving in the coming months?

Professor Willis [00:36:16] Yeah, I'm excited about the the opportunity to work on an exhibition. It's going to be in the National Gallery of Art in '23 '24, and it's looking at the role of Black photographers developing and images about culture, Black culture representing a way of looking at how movements were shaped from music to writers to visual artists, and how they were a part of creating a voice and in an impactful voice in changing rights movements. And and I think about rights movements. I think about human rights and civil rights movements. And so the work is a collaborative project with a colleague, Philip Brookman, who is a curator at the National Gallery of Art. And so I'm interested and in looking at artists, some of the images that are in the archives that have not been used and not been told and not explored. But we're refitting them in terms of re-imagining them in this space. And then I noticed that there are a number of artists who are looking at history and making images that are three dimensional and looking at images that for people to rethink our history not only in this country but globally. And so a number of artists that I'm I'm looking and working with are thinking deeply about making a difference. And how do we kind of create a new visual language and going through history and re-imagining history through the art form?

President Hamilton [00:38:12] That sounds very exciting indeed. Deb, thank you so much for joining us today, and it's been a real privilege and a pleasure to have Professor Deborah Willis as our guest today. Thank you.

Professor Willis [00:38:26] Thank you.