Deborah Willis has never been far from a camera.
Her father was a photographer, and he documented many things, including frequent visits the family made from their home in Philadelphia to Virginia. Willis’ father grew up in Orange County, and they made trips to Charlottesville, Louisa, Fredericksburg, and Luray Caverns—many of them documented on film, the prints preserved in albums of family memories. Her family told its stories through photography and it wasn’t long before Willis got behind the lens herself.
Since studying at Philadelphia College of Art in the 1970s, Willis has had a distinguished career as a photographer, a writer, and a scholar. She’s exhibited work in the U.S. and abroad, and curated dozens of shows to boot. She’s received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fletcher Fellowship, a MacArthur Fellowship (commonly known as a “genius grant”), and the 2014 NAACP Image Award for her book Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery, which she co-authored with Barbara Krauthamer.
Willis returns to Charlottesville on Saturday to give an artist talk for “Deborah Willis: In Pursuit of Beauty,” on view through April 27 in the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center’s contemporary gallery. The exhibition is part of the “Seeing Black: Disrupting the Visual Narrative” series of presentations and community outreach going on at the JSAAHC throughout the year.
“Professor Willis has transformed the entire conversation about beauty and photography, and evolved a methodology that combines visual and cultural studies, high style and vernacular,” writes art historian, curator, and Jefferson School African American Heritage Center Executive Director Andrea Douglas on the exhibition’s introductory panel.
Willis’ exhibition at the JSAAHC includes pieces from two recent bodies of work, “Representing Joan Baez’s Civil War,” and “In Pursuit of Beauty: Imaging Closets in Newark and Beyond,” but Willis says they are not so separate.
They are joined, she says, by the concept of the closet and the concept of memory. And in fact, viewing works from each in tandem can help lead to a deeper understanding…a new story, if you will.
For the “In Pursuit of Beauty” series, Willis photographed the contents of people’s closets. There’s the black and gold dinner jacket of Wayne Winborne, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University; artist Kevin Darmanie’s hat; dancer-turned-Harlem style icon Lana Turner’s gold and black opera coat.
A vibrant red silk dress entitled “Hortense’s Red Dress” is one of the first pieces Willis photographed for the series. Hortense was born in the 19th century, lived in the 20th century, owned a 15th-century castle, and spent a lot of time alone—and a lot of time shopping. “She found joy in wearing certain types of clothes that made her feel very special,” says Willis, and when Hortense died, her family preserved certain items known to be her favorite.
Two pairs of high-heeled shoes, one gold, one black, stand tall atop a shoebox in “Santeka’s High Heels.” Santeka Grigley wears these shoes only when she goes out in New York City, and in doing so, Willis says Grigley is “making a statement about how she feels about performing her own beauty in a different city.”
Though they are often concealed in a closet, clothing and accessories are outward expressions of an inner self—they can say a lot about a person. In seeing these items without bodies to literally flesh them out, viewers have the chance to understand an aspect of the wearer’s identity differently.
Willis wants viewers to imagine themselves in the clothes, too, and follow that thread of the closet and clothing through to “Representing Joan Baez’s Civil War.”
For 2018’s Whistle Down the Wind, which Baez has declared her last record, the singer-songwriter wanted to put together a visual album to accompany the music. One of her producers sent Willis the 10 tracks and asked her to choose one to illustrate visually. Willis chose “Civil War,” a song penned by Joe Henry and sung by Baez.
The song isn’t expressly about the war between the North and the South, but it is about a complicated situation rife with tension. Willis, who is currently writing a book about black Civil War soldiers, saw it as an opportunity to visually discuss the pride they took in wearing their uniforms: Uniforms that were preserved not just in closets but in photographs.
In “Representing Joan Baez’s Civil War,” dancers Djassi Johnson and Kevin Boseman perform a choreographed dance before a carousel of photographs of uniformed black soldiers. The dancers’ moving bodies tell a story as they cast and create shadows; at times they seem to be part of the projected photographs. The past and the present mingle physically, conceptually, and emotionally.
When we open up a closet, a concealed space holding something we can touch or see, “we find a sense of memory that we want to tell a story about,” says Willis. Perhaps there’s “the sense of feeling good about wearing a certain dress, or a certain pair of shoes, remembering the experiences of joy, or even sadness,” she says. Perhaps there’s the sense of imagining what it would have been like for a black soldier to don a uniform to fight in the Civil War. “The fact is, it creates a narrative about an experience that wants to be preserved,” says Willis.