A portrait of a driven 'genius'

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.

In 1972, she entered the Philadelphia College of Art. "I noticed that there were no African-American photographers in art history books, and that concerned me. A professor named Ann Tucker encouraged me to push ahead and to look in libraries and historical societies and to travel to look for these photographers. And that's where it started."


Later Willis, who joined the Smithsonian in 1992, earned a master of fine arts degree in 1979 from New York's Pratt Institute and was hired by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. "I was hired by luck," she says. "They were looking for a photograph curator the week I graduated."

Since then, she has curated such shows as "Black Photographers Bear Witness: 100 Years of Social Protest" (1989), "Van Der Zee" (1993) and "Imagining Families: Images and Voices" (1994). She also has written several books, including "Lorna Simpson" (1992) and "Picturing Us: African-American Identity in Photography" (1994).

In her own art, Willis often focuses on women at work, taking photographs whenever possible. Developing and editing are saved for Christmas and summer breaks. In a recent series, she photographed female body builders. (Two photos from this series have been on display at New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art in "Picturing the Modern Amazon," which closes today.)

In "Untitled, Body Builder No. 14," Willis juxtaposes the muscular thighs and long, red-tipped fingernails of Nancy Lewis, a body builder ranked ninth in the world. Taken as a close-up, the photo explores stereotypes of what is considered feminine or masculine. Viewed another way, the picture becomes nearly abstract.

"I've always been interested in women at work. Women taking care of their families. My mother -- a beautician -- worked at home, and I was fascinated by watching her with her clients. She was caring for them. Often they were domestics, and they would leave work and come to our house to be beautified for church," she says.

Next fall a book co-authored by Willis and Carla Williams that investigates assumptions about black female sexuality is scheduled for publication. Called "Venus 2000," it will include essays, poems and artworks that explore the origin of stereotypes about black women from 1800 to the present. The book's title refers to an African woman named Saartjie Baartman who was put on display in Europe from 1810-1815 as the "Hottentot Venus" because of her enormous buttocks. Willis both has contributed writing to the project and has made and photographed art quilts inspired by Baartman.


20 years of searching

For two decades, the quest to find and document photographs taken by African-Americans led Willis to little-used corners of historical societies, musty library stacks and private homes.

Many African-American photographers were unknown outside their immediate communities. To learn their identities, Willis scoured obituaries for mentions of hobbies or careers in photography. She then contacted living relatives and private collectors or searched for work by the deceased photographer in local libraries and historical societies.

"A lot was done by word-of-mouth," she says. "I got wonderful support from people who understood, but there were others who said, 'Why do a black photography book in the '90s?' "

Some contemporary photographers asked to be left out, saying they wished to be recognized as photographers, not as African-American photographers. "I respect their opinion," she says.

Others wanted a larger copyright fee than she could pay.


And in one case, a spouse destroyed many of her deceased husband's negatives. "She felt photography competed with their marriage," Willis says.

In the end, more than 300 works from daguerreotypes to digitized portraits made by 120 photographers were included. Some photographers worked when images of watermelon-eating children, happy-go-lucky minstrels and smiling mammies were prevalent in popular culture. They answered stereotypes with photographs of everyday life. By capturing visual images of weddings, proms, cooking classes and parades and portraits of families, businessmen and newborns, they recorded history.

Rage, warmth, hope

Others focused on politically charged subjects. Nineteenth-century photographer J. P. Ball created a triptych that includes a portrait of a just-freed slave, a photograph of the man being hanged for murder and a picture of the same man lying in a coffin. Joe Flowers described a community torn apart by violence and rage in the '60s with photographs taken in the aftermath of the Watts riots in Los Angeles. And in a 1993 photograph, "North Avenue, image No. 30 (babies)," Linda Day Clark gives us an eloquent image of teen-age mothers and their children.

An unidentified woman who worked as a domestic in the early 1900s posed twice for Richard Samuel Roberts, a South Carolinian who learned photography from a correspondence course. In the first photo, she wears a black dress smothered in the starched white apron of a maid. In the second, she wears the same black dress, but no apron.

Dignity and humor also can be seen in this exhibit. In a series called "Old Character," Polk usually photographed his subjects sitting down. But in an image taken in 1932, a large woman wearing a kerchief and dressed in a wool sweater riddled with holes and stretched tautly over her torso stands, hands on hips, looking straight at the camera. The photograph is called, "The Boss."


These days, Willis is looking forward to pursuing new projects. "I think I have done enough. I think there's someone else out there who can take it and push it further. And they don't have to be African-American. I had a lot of interns who are white, and they are interested. I also had a lot of interns who are African-American, and they are interested. And it's time for them."

She points at a small black-and-white print taped haphazardly to a file cabinet in her office. It is a picture of a woman slumped over in exhaustion. "Sometimes I feel like that," she says.

Maybe she'll take a little break, she muses.

Except there's her curatorial work at the Smithsonian. And this fall she is scheduled to teach a class in visual culture at Duke University. And she plans to write a book about young black men -- to memorialize a nephew who was murdered in Philadelphia last February.

Already she has begun taking photographs of young men at school, on basketball courts, at work. "I just cannot imagine the person who could have shot him," she says. "I can't imagine a person who wouldn't love him. I feel as though I have to do something."