A creative project is often a journey past preconceptions and on to realizations unforeseen. It can be compounded when rifling through history.
Deborah Willis, Ph.D., found out firsthand. In the mid 1990s, the department chair of Photography and Imaging at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts sought images for her book “Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the present” and was struck by contextual strata.
“I noticed photographers focused their lenses on not only the difficult aspects in their communities but also beauty often overlooked in the larger community,” Willis wrote via email. “I decided to make note of some of the images made and began putting together an archive of photos by both black and white photographers that appeared within the notion of posing and beauty.”
After 10 years, she had a whole new collection around those latter themes and sought a publisher. The result was “Posing Beauty in African-American Culture.” The critically acclaimed exhibit she spawned is at the Mobile Museum of Art (4850 Museum Drive) through March 4.
Willis will be at MMoA on Saturday, Dec. 16, at 3 p.m. to supply her insights. Attendees can indulge in a wine and cheese reception before listening to her address the experience of completing the century-plus visual compilation.
Regular admission rates apply. Entrance is free for members.
The exhibit’s journey was initially quite personal for Willis, an artist who had previously printed photographs onto fabric to make quilts.
“I use my own family photographs and archival references to incorporate stories and social politics into my art, hoping to invite a larger public to imagine these experiences — both collective and individual — of African-Americans in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries,” Willis wrote.
It was an inroad to generations of African-American women whose path to entrepreneurship was as laundresses, day care providers, hair care/beauticians and other cottage industries. That, too was autobiographical.
“I grew up in my mom’s beauty shop and remember watching the women looking in the mirror, assessing themselves and approving their looks. Collective and individual memories are the foundation for my work. I’m concerned with the present and its linkage to the past: identity through connection to community and ideas fully imagined through beauty and the art-making process,” Willis said.
She maintained distance from defining too much for the viewer. The subjects were often “posing for another time and place,” where sociology and era was as much a part of the work as photons and shutter speed.
“I began with the documentation of black women but then noticed that men were central to the narrative, as they posed in fine suits and hats and stood in front of the camera with such dignity against a backdrop of oppression,” Willis said.
The curator cited a series of campaigns sparked from “the black press” as particularly fortuitous. From the 1900s through the 1940s, African-American-oriented publications such as Crisis Magazine, the New York Age, Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier and St. Paul Recorder created beauty contests and asked readers to send portraits of women. Along with reports highlighting the achievements of young men and women, it was one of many efforts aimed at bolstering self-image.
“Scholars like Mark Anthony Neal have written extensively on black masculinity, especially the ‘legible’ black male body, and assert the black male body is often criminalized through policing of images. This is not a new phenomenon. Images from the 19th to the present circulate with such stereotyping,” Willis said.
She pointed to Civil War photography as an early attempt by black males to brand themselves with character traits apart from racist portrayals. Bravery was foremost.
“During the war years, soldiers posed in studios and in tents and wagons. Backdrop scenes included landscapes, flags, bunkers, and each soldier held a weapon — a firearm or a sword — that suggested he was in control of his own manhood and freedom,” Willis said.
She also sees historic precedent in contemporary society’s most ubiquitous photography. Willis called the selfie a modern analog to the photobooths she found everywhere as a teenager, where, along with family and friends, they would indulge in a series of shots.
“The intimacy of the closed space darkened by a curtain assisted the sitter in creating natural and desired personas viewed after paying a coin for a strip of four portraits. The joy of girl culture is animated through these,” Willis wrote.
For her, they weave together identity, selfhood, companionship and memory into self-reflections and a sense of empowerment. Those photos are testimony to pride and determination.