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Matinee: Deborah Willis Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

13 February 2016

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 122nd in our series of Saturday matinees today: Ellen Susman's interview with photographer Deborah Willis.

A 2000 MacArthur Fellow, Deborah Willis is professor and chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at Tisch School of the Arts of New York University. In this 11 minute interview, she looks back on her lifelong interest in photography.

It was kindled, she begins, by her father, who himself was an amateur photographer. He was always photographing the family, she remembers, and when the prints came back they would sit down to arrange them carefully in albums. From that she learned the power of photography to tell stories.

In the summer of 1969 she went to Brooklyn as a young woman with an Afro to teach photography to young children. There was a sense of hope, she says, after the Civil Rights movement. And she never forgot that summer. "New York was important to me because I felt New Yorkers were dreamers and they believed in fulfilling their dreams," she sums it up.

As her love of photography developed, she became curious to know what other black photographers had done. But she discovered black photographers were missing from the history books.

A professor suggested she look into it. So she interviewed black photographers of the 1920s and 1930s who were then at the end of their lives.

They were delighted to be found. They showed her their work. She organized an exhibition. They had not been forgotten after all. Their stories had been told.

Willis published her research, the first of many books on the history black photography she was to write.

Susman continues the interview by asking Willis about her academic career, especially in regard to her research into images of the black female, her experience as a breast cancer survivor and what the MacArthur genius grant meant to her.

There's more about her work on the history of black photography from the 19th century to the modern era in this 2:22 video:

Photographs are important, Willis observes, because people believe what they see, they believe the photos are true. Photos don't steal your soul, she laughs, but some of them steal your mind.

Susman ends the interview by asking what advice Willis gives to young artists.

It's difficult, Willis acknowledges. No one is going to encourage you. Always think about your dream but do what you have to do to survive and make the work. Don't give up.

Dreams, after all, have a way of coming true.

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