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Deborah Willis has been in love with photos ever since as a young girl she read the book The Sweetflypaper of Life, with text by Langston Hughes and photos by Roy DeCarava. Fortunately for us, Willis devotes much of her life to preserving the legacy of African-American photographers, as well as making her own contribution to the art form.
Her latest accomplishment is Visual Journal: Harlem and D.C. in the Thirties and Forties, the catalog of the show currently on display at the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industry Building. Willis co-curated the show and, along with Jane Lusaka, edited the book, which features the work of Gordon Parks, Morgan and Marvin Smith, Robert McNeill, and the Scurlock family. The tome features, among the vivid black-and-white photos, six essays that give biographical information about the different photographers as well as describing their artistic development and the historical context of their work.
Willis initially met the Washington-based photographers while doing research in the 1970s. Then, in 1992 she moved to D.C. to work on the National African-American Museum Project, at which time she had the opportunity to talk with photographers such as McNeill and Robert Scurlock.
“When I was asked to conceive of exhibitions for the gallery…I decided to look at Washington as a city where many people moved from south to north. And in terms of migration, looking at how the two cities—New York and Washington—were major centers educationally, intellectually, and for new jobs and careers.”
In addition to being an art historian and author of several books, Willis is herself a photographer. She cites DeCarava and the contemporary photographer Clarissa Sligh, a D.C. native, as major influences on her work.
“I do family photographs, family stories. I’m interested in looking at how everyday life is presented and preserved in families,” Willis says. Her work has been exhibited recently in New York, Atlanta, and in the “Visual Griot” exhibit at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, earlier this year.
One thing Willis finds particularly gratifying about “Visual Journal” is the way it draws an unusually mixed audience, crossing generations and even cultures.
“It’s just interesting to see people going through the exhibit now—black, white, Asian. The older people recognize the images and situations that they’ve gone through. And the younger people are then turned on by the older people.”