Photographer Deborah Willis, Ph.D, is University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and has an affiliated appointment with the College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Social & Cultural Analysis, Africana Studies, where she teaches courses on Photography & Imaging, iconicity, and cultural histories visualizing the black body, women, and gender. Her research examines photography’s multifaceted histories, visual culture, the photographic history of Slavery and Emancipation; contemporary women photographers and beauty. She received the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. Willis is the author of Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present; and co-author of The Black Female Body A Photographic History; Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery; and Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs (both titles a NAACP Image Award Winner). Professor Willis’s curated exhibitions include: "In Pursuit of Beauty" at Express Newark; "Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits” at the International Center of Photography and "Reframing Beauty: Intimate Moments" at Indiana University. Since 2006 she has co-organized thematic conferences exploring imaging the black body in the West such as the conference titled Black Portraiture[s] which was held in Johannesburg in 2016. She has appeared and consulted on media projects including documentary films such as Through A Lens Darkly and Question Bridge: Black Males, a transmedia project, which received the ICP Infinity Award 2015, and American Photography, PBS Documentary.  Her most recent project Deborah Willis: In Pursuit of Beauty, Imaging Closets in Newark and Beyond was published by Shine Studios in 2019.

Current and recent projects include: The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship, NYU Series in Social and Cultural Analysis read an interview 2021; 100 years100 women ; To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes

(Re)collecting an Artist’s Dream

Deborah Willis

I Made a Space for a Good Man

15” x 29 1/2”  Lithograph Artists Proof on Cotton Rag  1976 - 2011

This self portrait pictures Deborah pregnant with her son Hank Willis Thomas. The Women’s Study(room) Floral Wallpaper (United Wallpaper Co) circa 1948: the same year of Deborah’s birth and the “Cottage” purchased by Madeline and Martin. 

“In “I Made a Space for a Good Man,” Deborah Willis creates a triptych-like lithograph using three photographs of herself during her pregnancy with her son, the artist Hank Willis Thomas (also featured in this show). In an accompanying wall label, we are given insight on the title’s meaning. As a black, female undergraduate student at the Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts), Willis was called out by a professor for “taking up a good man’s space,” (Note 1) since she would eventually get married and have children.

“A conceptual artist working primarily with themes related to identity, history and popular culture. Hank Willis Thomas's work has been exhibited throughout the U.S. and abroad....

copyright © 2021 Hope Sandrow all rights reserved

Note 1: Sandrow heard this professor’s comment to Willis.

A comment he also told her when he and another male professor attempted to assign her failing grades in the semesters studio classes (36 students, 4 women): but were forced to reevaluate Sandrow’s work when photography teacher Ray Metzker purposefully attended their final critique. The film history teacher assigned a C to Sandrow’s semesters work after she turned down his proposition to have an affair; filmmaker teacher said he was disappointed she wouldn’t have sex with him because “all the women students did with the male professors when he was a student, a reason he took the teaching position”. After the Philadelphia College of Art School Dean refused to intervene on her behalf, Sandrow dropped out, moved to NYC (1974). While Willis continued, graduated.


Deborah Willis