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Deborah Willis and Carrie Mae Weems talk about beauty

Deborah Willis' new book, 'Posing Beauty,' uses Ken Ramsay's 1970s-era portrait of Susan Taylor for the cover.

"Where are you going next?" I asked Deborah Willis, who sat at the end of a table piled with copies of half a dozen of her 27 books in the hallway at Light Work Gallery.

"Well tomorrow I'm going to Paris for a signing and then after that to Zurich for another book event," she smiled. All the copies of Willis' two new books -- "Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present" and a slender volume centering on Michelle Obama, which she later said she'd had to agree to do as part of a package deal to get the beauty book a publisher -- had sold out.

In the hallway before the talk, under Willis' hands on the table's edge sat a single copy of her book with Carla Williams, "The Black Female Body: A Photographic History" (2002). It's out of print now and the few hard-to-come-by copies on-line are collector-grade pricey. The SU Bookstore was managing the book table sales and had pulled out what other Willis volumes they had on hand for this signing event, which was how this single stray copy of "The Black Female Body" had surfaced. Willis herself quickly bought it and then called Williams on her cell to report she'd found a copy: even Williams hadn't had one, which made me feel not so bad I'd gotten there too late.

Willis -- premier photohistorian, writer, curator, Chair of Imaging at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, MacArthur "genius" fellow, and art photographer (she has a joint photo exhibition with her son, Hank Willis Thomas, "Progeny," touring nationally through 2010) -- travels a lot. The artist and photographer Carrie Mae Weems says she has never encountered anyone with a matching work ethic. The two are very old friends and last Thursday night they sat together before a packed audience in the auditorium off Light Work Gallery and talked at length about Black beauty and how that is represented in photography, something both have wrestled with and written about and made images of for years now, and ranged as well into how work really starts in the classroom with students' questions and how Michelle Obama -- once cast as fist-bumping terrorist -- has changed things. The Willis-Weems talk was the final event in the Central New York Mellon Humanities Corridor's "Key Words in Visual Culture," a semester-long project carried on jointly among Syracuse University, the University of Rochester and Cornell.

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