Nov 03, 2008 Nancy Keefe Rhodes Uncategorized
South Side Initiative hosts Deborah Willis, part of broad local history project:
From her recent schedule, Deborah Willis is a whirlwind. Besides finishing her new book, “Obama: the Historic Campaign in Photographs,” out this Tuesday from Amistad Press, the travels of this photographer, art and photo historian, curator, scholar and writer have lately taken her as far as Nigeria and Oregon. A Guggenheim, Fletcher and MacArthur fellow, Willis is professor and chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She has worked with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and New York City’s International Center on Photography (ICP).
Besides her own exhibitions, she’s written, edited and contributed to many books about African American photography and culture, including “Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography” (1994), “Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers from 1840 to the Present” (2000), “The Black Female Body: A Photographic History” (2002, with Carla Williams), “Let Your Motto be Resistance: African American Portraits” (2007) and her essay for the catalogue of the ICP’s important 2005 exhibition, “African American Vernacular Photography.” And that’s the tip of the iceberg.
Invited by South Side Initiative
When Willis comes to Syracuse next Thursday, invited by the South Side Initiative (SSI), with co-sponsors including Light Work and the Onondaga Historical Association, she’ll be talking about Black vernacular photography — the images of family and local history recorded by community-based photographers. She likes to use local examples, so she’ll include some by long-time Syracuse photographer Marjory Wilkins. Besides her talk at Light Work at 6:00 p.m., Willis meets earlier with the SSI’s Community Committee to Collect and Preserve Black History.
The South Side Initiative itself is a bit of an iceberg. Launched in 2005 by Syracuse University, SSI now has some 15 projects underway, all manifestations of the idea that community-university collaboration should stem from what citizens say would serve their community. These include the new Networking Academy for providing computer access, the middle-school Kuumba arts project based at Community Folk Art Center, a forth-coming food co-op and the community newspaper slated for debut next March.
Incubating for a while now, the collection and preservation project is just starting to make a more public appearance with the Deborah Willis event plus two workshops offered to introduce community members to the basics of handling their old documents and photos.
The first of these workshops was held at Beauchamp Branch Library on October 7, conducted by Kenneth Lavender, SU faculty in Information Studies. About 30 people attended and Lavender talked about “storage environments” (the single most important thing, he said) and how to think about archiving what you have. He’ll conduct a follow-up workshop on November 11 at Dunbar Center that focuses on actual preservation.
Lavender said later, “Documents and photos aren’t interchangeable, of course, but both need similar housing. We had some town meetings about this project. There were many statements of concern, from the Black churches and others, that children don’t know their heritage or save anything, so these workshops can first of all help families and organizations like the churches create archives. And the goal is a center for such material, either physical or virtual.”
Lavender and SU’s museum studies faculty Teddy Aiken are also working toward a new Certificate of Advanced Study in Cultural Heritage that would coalesce projects and resources from across their departments, the libraries, cultural anthropology, fine arts and art history.
“Then Linda Littlejohn from the South Side Initiative called and asked about this,” Lavender said. “Since the CAS will require 300 hours of internship, the collection and preservation project would be a good venue for interns — it could be through Beauchamp or Dunbar or OHA. And the idea of the Schomburg Center involved in training interns meant an awful lot.”
An SU associate vice president tasked with SSI’s academic affairs issues, Littlejohn spoke last week in her office about the networks involved in the project.
“Several years ago I began developing a partnership between the Schomburg and SU,” she said. “They are one of the places that get recruitment information, for example. I also met with their librarian and when we are ready, they’ll provide some training in special collections for an SU graduate student.”
Meanwhile, Joan Bryant will teach a spring semester course entitled, “Black Syracuse: Organizing and Interpreting Hidden Research Collections,” developed with fellow faculty Marsha Robinson and SU librarians Angela Williams and Bonnie Ryan. She’ll teach the course off-campus at Dunbar Center. Besides getting hands-on experience, students will themselves offer workshops and a public presentation in the spring.
“The Dunbar Center has material on the Great Migration, for example,” said Bryant. She’s also keenly interested in creating an oral history database.
The project’s steering committee meets monthly and includes, besides Littlejohn and SSI director Margie Gannt, Amatullah Yamini, Sharon Jack Williams, Shirley Rowser, Ossie Edwards, Gregg Tripoli, Emma MacDonald, Diane Shakir, Kitty Rice, Annette White, Angela Williams and Eddie Brooks, Jr.
County librarian Ossie Edwards, now at Betts Library Branch in the Valley, said she volunteered because “I wanted kids to get a perspective on day-to-day, year-to-year life and history in the African American community. We’ve had projects before — Vanessa Johnson did one about the first African in Central New York — but we’ve never really had a good study about how it all evolved.”
Shirley Rowser teaches business and marketing at Bryant & Stratton. She’s also wants to “preserve what goes unnoticed, especially by young people. We can change that. We’ve had African American families for generations in Syracuse. Now we have a time-line to develop some actual center by 2013.”
Salina Shoe Salon-owner Amatullah Yamini joined to bring a neighborhood project into a city-wide movement.
“We’ve been working a New Africa of Syracuse project,” she said, “in our own four square block area — Salina, Brighton, West Lafayette and Cannon Streets — and we said let’s join efforts. The North Side is working on theirs and we’ll meet in the middle. I’m hoping we’ll have success we can all be proud of, not just Syracuse but the whole country.”
OHA’s new director, Gregg Tripoli, met with Linda Littlejohn earlier this fall, asked to join the project and made sure OHA contributed to Deborah Willis’ visit.
“We’re a non-profit so usually we’re asking for money,” he said. “But it’s very important that she’s coming here. People don’t realize about photos — they throw them in a box. We’re expanding our Underground Railroad exhibit, but we haven’t done enough on the more recent, tremendous contributions by the Black community. I asked for this when I took the job. For most of my life I’ve worked overseas and I’m used to more diversity. It was actually strange to come home the Central New York.”
Previous efforts highlighted 15th Ward
The SSI’s history project is, as Ossie Edwards noted, not the first such effort. In 1993-94, Beauchamp Library was the site a New York State-grant funded project to collect and archive photographs from the area served by Beauchamp, which includes the old 15th Ward. Over four weekly clinics, 22 people brought in family photographs that were re-shot, printed, annotated and archived in Beauchamp’s Black History Resource Room. At the same time, SU’s Library Associates published a lengthy 1964 memoir about growing up in the 15th Ward, “Syracuse, the Old Home Town,” by novelist John A. Williams.
Photographer and videographer Ellen Blalock shot the mid-90s Beauchamp photo project and in 2005 made a video documentary of Marjory Wilkins. She now has some footage for a similar project about photographer Grady Reid. Blalock, from Philadelphia originally, spoke recently about such projects in light of the old 15th Ward’s demolition to make way for Route 81 and other development projects half a century ago.
“I’m not from here, but when I heard about things being busted up, it seems like the beginning of deterioration was urban planning. It was like a peaceful Rosewood,” said Blalock, referencing the 1923 burning of an all-Black Florida community depicted by director John Singleton in his film of the same name.
“My people did have businesses and skills and trades,” she went on. “We were self-sustaining. The same thing happened in Philadelphia. In Syracuse you can almost pin-point where things got all twisted.”
Nor is the SSI collection project the only such effort. SU’s museum studies faculty Bradley Hudson has a graduate seminar collecting 15th Ward photographs and documents this semester from OHA, OCC, Beauchamp and private collections for a campus display coinciding with the annual Sojourner Storytelling Conference in Hendricks Chapel on February 26. Hudson joins forces in this with communications professor Kendall Phillips, whose students began videotaping 15th Ward interviews two years ago, producing a 42-minute documentary. Phillips in turn will join forces with professor Joanna Spitzner to pod-cast some interviews from the new Redhouse Radio downtown. They hope the February Hendricks Chapel display can travel to other local venues and even let visitors record oral histories on the spot.
Meanwhile, Linda Littlejohn is pleased that the nation’s premier Black photohistorian will use a local photographer’s images to make some of her points when she speaks in Syracuse next week.
“What we have at our finger tips is much more than we realize,” she said. “Mrs. Wilkins is so quiet and unassuming in her genius. We’ve invited Deborah Willis to demonstrate to the team how we can begin to think about using photographs in local history. And perhaps Mrs. Wilkins and other photographers of her generation will see how important their work is and how valued by this community.”
Back at NYU recently from Oregon and on her way to a week at Harvard, Deborah Willis spoke by phone about her upcoming Syracuse visit, trends in photography and her own work. Here’s part of our conversation:
You’ll be here on November 6th at the invitation of the South Side Initiative’s collection and preservation project, a community-university project to gather local Black history, especially photographs. What will you talk about and what do you think is important for participants in such projects to know?
There are two talks, one to the preservation group and then a public talk at Light Work. First, for the project I’ll focus on community-based photography and photographers and their interaction with the community.
Such photographers really documented the memories and desires of their community. I’ll talk about what communities expected of their photographers and show some examples from 1900 to 1960. I also think oral history is significant. I’ve just been in Oregon visiting a project in Eugene that’s mainly oral history. I believe we need the two merged. And the Black press is important.
The South Side Initiative’s project is one project here in Syracuse. This seems to be a very fertile moment with a number of projects now going on and just starting to be aware of each other. Do you see similar activity in your travels to other communities?
Yeah! Here in New York City, Columbia has a project called “Engendering the Archive.” Temple University has a similar project. A lot is happening right now between universities and communities. The Oregon project is supported by the university there. Chicago has a project. Earlier this year, the ICP even had Okwui Enwezer’s show called “Archive Fever.” I love that term, but I believe it is a moment when everyone’s temperature is rising.
You have old ties here in Syracuse — at Light Work itself, with the “Embracing Eatonville” exhibition that began here in 2003-04 and traveled, and to Carrie Mae Weems’ “Hampton Project,” just as a couple examples
I’m very old friends with Jeff Hoone, who invited me as Artist-in-Residence to Light Work in 1990 and before that we had done different projects together. Syracuse has always been an important part of my life. The library invited me too, and the African American Studies Department. So there’s a nice connection here and I’m glad to be back and to be able to think about my work at the beginning of my career and midway.
It seems that community-based photographs often haven’t been valued — perhaps because they recorded a history that wasn’t valued in the larger culture, perhaps because the larger culture assumed the practitioners as vernacular photographers were unschooled and therefore not expert — can you talk about this picture-taking community?
Well, they were ignored because most historians rarely used photos as records. Now historians are more interdisciplinary. There was a guy at the University of California, I think at Santa Barbara, named Doug Daniels, who did a book [in 1991] called “Pioneer Urbanites.” He was looking at Black San Francisco and he was the first historian who used photography in over 20 years. Now photography is considered a tool for historians. Now photography is as valuable as text. People threw out photographs when people died. I’ve spent my entire life reminding people to preserve photographs. Photographs are about desire and dreams and documenting them. Now there’s a new generation of scholars and American Studies in particular has been a big instigator in reminding us.
So, thinking photographs aren’t as important as text is in the world of historical documents is like photographs not being considered “real art” either in some quarters?
Besides in your own photographs, in a number of your books you’ve returned repeatedly to the subject of images of women. There’s also your collaborative work with Carla Williams in “The Black Female Body: A Photographic History,” and work that’s forthcoming — your essay in Pearl McHaney’s book on Eudora Welty’s photographs is out next March and, in 2010, your book on beauty and posing.
Can you comment on this thread and how it’s developed?
Just in terms of women’s beauty it’s always been a part of my life. My mom had a beauty shop. The voice of the beautician as the voice of the care-giver has been ignored — it’s always been the barbershop. I started in the late 90’s on this project because Mom was entering her late 80s. I wanted to photograph women still working and still owning their own businesses. Then in 2001, I had breast cancer. So I went through the chemotherapy and the radiation and I lost my hair and I realized how people responded to me as bald. I wanted to document the notion “does beauty matter?” — even in health care — and the psychological aspect. Between the diagnosis and treatment I was in the middle of working on the female body book [with Carla Williams] and I wanted to continue that. I had met Carla ten years before that book and she often talked about object and subject and these questions in relation to Black women and I wanted to tell the story. The beauty project — I noticed some early books and articles about Black beauty in the 1890s. There were beauty contests. This is something people rarely know about. I was just looking for photos — in Texas, in LA, and just researching how beauty affected Back culture and what sustained the idea of beauty.
Your new book, on Barack Obama’s campaign, comes out October 28th from Amistad Press — that’s a pretty quick turnaround in book publishing.
It was a quick turn-around! An intense summer of working every day to get it out. It covers from the day he announced i
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