Deborah Willis and Carrie Mae Weems talk about beauty

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 11/24/09More articles
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.

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.

At 234 pages, “Posing Beauty” has a compact introduction that asks about both sides of the photographic interaction – what the photographer and what the subject each sought; how the Black community went about making its own store of images to counter the sea of mainstream hostile, stereotypical images in the U.S.; and references Elaine Scarry’s astute and thoughtful “On Beauty and being Just” (2001), the best working-out that I know about how we recognize the beautiful and the sources of our urge to reproduce that – to make images. The book also has a detailed index, a bibliography, end-notes – but mostly it has pages and pages of images, both men and women, and to sit with it for even a little while is to see why Publisher’s Weekly calls it “ground-breaking.”

These are divided into four sections, each of which contains wonderful surprises. Early in “Constructing a Pose,” there’s a snapshot of the musician Valaida Snow, a musician caught in a Nazi dragnet in World War II Europe who died in a concentration camp; here, she’s conducting a small orchestra during a show in London in 1934, dressed in a shimmering, slinky white gown, baton raised. There is the image of Zora Neale Hurston by Carl Van Vechten that she liked because it made her “look mean and impressive.” There’s also Cartier-Bresson’s “Easter Sunday Morning, Harlem, 1947” and Theodore Fonville Winans’ “Dixie Belles, Central Louisiana, 1938” – two girls in straw hats placed just so – and Eve Arnold’s “Malcolm X, Chicago, 1961” (also on the book’s back cover) and Bruce Davidson’s “Bodybuilder on Venice Beach, 1964,” one of the slides Willis showed last Thursday with a droll comment about the woman in the picture taking the bodybuilder’s picture while her husband looked on, helpless, hands jammed in his pockets. Some of the images in “Posing Beauty” have appeared already in “The Black Body” and it’s a pleasure to see they will have a new lease of life in this new book.

The second section is titled “Body and Image” and features a range of images that actively assert “beauty” and the power it confers – a 1930s image entitled “Brown Madonna and Child,” Prentice Polk’s portrait of Lena Horne posing with the Tuskegee Airmen in the 1940s before a statue of George Washington Carver, Eve Arnold’s “Integration Crisis” – two schoolgirls side by side in a restroom, one Black, at a party to introduce students in Virginia in 1958.

Part III, “Modeling Beauty and Beauty Contests,” brings together a number of Willis projects, including photo-documentation of Black beauty parlors and barber shops, some from the 1920s, and her question to find visual records of Black beauty contests, the earliest of which occurred over a century ago. This section also contains images of men posing with jazzy new cars and women engaging in cultured pursuits such as the image of a Black woman giving piano lessons to a young girl that W.E.B. DuBois took the Paris Exposition in 1899 as part of his project to present African Americans in radically new visual settings. And here is Jurgen Schadberg’s 1955 shot of the singer Miriam Makeba in a Johannesburg nightclub with her natural hair, which Willis has spoken of as having an electrifying effecting in those years. Part IV comprises a number of color plates, from portraits of public figures to the increasing use of self-portraiture such as Renée Cox perched in the Statue of Liberty’s crown.

Light Work videotaped the talk that Willis and Weems had so that may be available at some point. Meanwhile, there’s “Posing Beauty,” worth the wait.

Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at

TAGS: Deborah Willis, Posing Beauty book, beauty, Light Work Gallery, African American photography, Carrie Mae Weems, Jeff Hoone, Mellon Central New York Humanities Corridor, Syracuse Symposium LIGHT, Syracuse University, Nancy Keefe Rhodes
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