Carrie Mae Weems was recently featured on PBS' Artists in the 21st Century series and herself has work in the Getty Museum, the International Center of Photography and MoMA. She said Thursday that she had known Willis over 30 years.
"When I was starting out, I put out a call to find women who were working around the country -- Black women in photography -- Deb was one of the first who replied," she said.
Willis was in town last year right after the presidential election at the invitation of the Southside Initiative, consulting about creating community history projects. She gave an afternoon talk at the Dunbar Center, showing slides and commenting on some of the early black-and-white photos of local photographer Marjory Wilkins. Later that day she spoke on campus, introduced by Weems, and showed slides from the beauty project, which she'd just then sent off to the publisher. She said she wished she'd seen Wilkins' images before she'd finished the book, fastening particularly on one of a young man arm-in-arm with two well-dressed ladies and another of five young women posing before a plate-glass window after church. She again showed slides Thursday night, beginning with a 1850 poster for a runaway slave named Dolly, whom her owner so wanted back that he acknowledged publically that she was "rather good looking."
Willis has been researching her new book actively for over a decade, seeking out images from the 1890s to the present that document how both photographers and their subjects have defined, challenged and reinvented concepts of beauty for women and men in African-American communities, how a "pose" is constructed (as well as how images actively "pose" -- as in, to offer or assert -- certain visual traits as beautiful) and the ways that beauty is essentially empowering. But her engagement with these questions dates from her childhood when she "watched the transformation women experienced in my mother's beauty shop in our home in North Philadelphia," and from her years as an undergraduate student who'd just started working at the Schomberg Center in Harlem and noticed there seemed to be very little material on Black beauty. Criss-crossing the country since then, getting a second masters in art history, she found there turned out to be a lot more material than she'd thought. She is looking always for stories, she says.