Deborah Willis is a photographer, a prolific one. She's published upwards of 20 books of her work and is viewed as a kind of icon in her field covering everything from the history of black photography to the Obamas. At a time when photography and the arts in general were largely dominated by white males, Willis emerged as something of a phenom. And if you already find out that you know her work you'll understand why in a moment. She's a recipient of the MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships and chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. And the talent in that family doesn't end with her.
Her son Hank Willis Thomas is a renowned artist in his own right, working in photography, video and installations with a similar focus on identity history and popular culture. His work's been exhibited around the world too, including the Guggenheim Bilbao, the National Gallery of Art in DC, and the Museum of Modern Art right here in New York City.
Deborah: I like to read the family album. I loved to look at the way that the women were dressed. I love the inscriptions. So I think the family album is really a central way for us to know about our memories and to tell stories. Later on I realized that in the larger society, no one actually looked at black families as a central way of knowing, a sense of being, or a sense of existence.
Hank: In 1968, during the Memphis Sanitation Workers March, a photographer, African-American photographer named Ernest Wither, photographed dozens of protesters holding signs that read, "I am a man." And I always reflected on that image with curiosity because there was a statement of collectivity when people were fighting segregation. After integration, it seemed to be a boastful statement and saying, "I'm the man." And I felt that there was progress in being able to be an individual, but also things that are lost when we don't see the benefits of collective struggle.
Deborah Willis: The importance of post slavery period creating their own biography, their own autobiography. I want to tell a story about my existence, my existence with my two children, three children, my existence in terms of style of dress, my existence of being free. Photographers were significant in making that statement. It was an opportunity for blacks to marry for the first time, they were legally able to vote. Men were legally able to vote in some parts of the country. And so it brought this sense of humanity back and I think photography was central in terms of recognizing that sense of humanity and memory in that way.
That was really significant for me to know that one of the earliest photographers who brought photography to America was a black man unknown in my history books of photography, Jules Leone. He had a Dariya type studio here in New Orleans. In 1840, he had a studio on Charter Street. So thinking about that, it was important because the absence of the discussion of black photographers, the absence of black people who had businesses and families. People think that black people did not have a sense of desire outside of being the servant or the stoop labor in terms of that period.
I'm writing a book about the black Civil War soldier. And I didn't know that there were black Civil War soldiers when I was in high school. I found images of my great, great uncles who were in World War I and the sense of pride that happens in looking at family photographs, because pride was denied for black people when we visualize images of black people through the lens of racist photography.
Hank T. W.: Within my mother's work, one of the things that I think really had a profound effect on me was this idea of the camera being a tool of the sitter. Her image was an opportunity for her. It was her "I am." A way to stake a claim and to represent herself in spite of the way that they were caricatures and other ways that stories of people of African descent were being disseminated. And I think I'm always trying to bring the past present with my work. I'm really interested in learning lessons from the past and trying to make statements in the now that ranges from sculptures that I've made based of photographs at the fall of the Berlin Wall.
There's another photograph by a photographer named Ernest Cole of miners being strip searched in South Africa in the 1960s. And I wanted to represent it but I wanted to crop it. And so I represented it as a sculpture and I cropped it at their shoulders and you could just see the heads in their arms up and I titled it Raise Up. And in the summer of 2014, Michael Brown was murdered by a police officer and the cry by the public was, "Hands up don't shoot." And my sculpture spoke very, very eloquently and clearly to people who are fighting for human rights and equal rights in the 21st century.
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