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Deborah Willis, “Visualizing the Black Body in Photography and Popular Culture”

We continue our exploration of the theme Humanities this winter with a lecture by NYU Professor of Photography and Imaging, Deborah Willis. Willis is this year’s O’Fallon Memorial Lecturer in Art and American Culture. The lecture coincides with an exhibition at the JSMA, “Between the World and Me,” in which Willis’s son, Hank Willis Thomas, is one of the featured artists.

Professor Willis notes, “Images of the black subject, whether artistic, documentary, or anthropological, are forever fixed in the popular imagination through photography. From the medium’s beginning, race and gender have shaped and controlled the reception of photographic portraits, both politically and aesthetically. Black and white American photographers of the 19th and 20th centuries responded to their own lives and their communities in similar ways. Some evoked an emotional message that went beyond self-representation but connected in the re-characterization of the African American experience. Today, many of the black photographers working all over the diaspora are responding to social issues that take them beyond the sometimes-insular photographic community. They comment on politics, culture, family, and history from internal and external points of view…and are actively involved in changing the course of art history and fundamentally imaging the black in Western art.”

Deborah Willis is University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU and an affiliated faculty member in Africana Studies. She has pursued a dual professional career as an art photographer and as a leading historian of African American photography and curator of African American culture. She is the recipient of many prestigious awards, including a Guggenheim (2005) and a MacArthur (2000).

Willis is the author of several books, including Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery with Barbara Krauthamer; Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present; and Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers – 1840 to the Present. Her book Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs received the 2010 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work Biography/Autobiography.