Deborah Willis, PhD

Gala Honoree Deborah Willis in a black blazer and multi-colored scarf in front of a bookshelf

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 affiliated appointments with the College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Social & Cultural and the Institute of Fine Arts where she teaches courses on Photography & Imaging, iconicity, and cultural histories visualizing the black body, women, and gender. She is also the director of NYU’s Center for Black Visual Culture/Institute for African American Affairs. Her research examines photography’s multifaceted histories, visual culture, contemporary women photographers and beauty.  

She received the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship and was a Richard D. Cohen Fellow in African and African American Art, Hutchins Center, Harvard University; a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow, and an Alphonse Fletcher, Jr. Fellow. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and received awards from the College Art Association for Writing Art History (2021) and the Outstanding Service Award from the Royal Photographic Society in the UK. She was awarded the Don Tyson Prize for the Advancement of American Art and named the Mary Lucille Dauray Artist-in-Residence by the Norton Museum of Art in 2023. She has pursued a dual professional career as an art photographer and as one of the nation's leading historians of African American photography and curator of African diasporic cultures.

Willis is the author of The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and CitizenshipPosing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the PresentOut [o] Fashion Photography: Embracing Beauty; Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers - 1840 to the Present; Let Your Motto be Resistance – African American PortraitsFamily History Memory: Photographs by Deborah WillisVANDERZEE: The Portraits of James VanDerZee; and co-author of The Black Female Body A Photographic History with Carla Williams; Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery with Barbara Krauthamer; and Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs (both titles a NAACP Image Award Winner). 

She lectures widely and has co-edited books Women and Migration(s); authored many papers and articles on a range of subjects including The Image of the Black in Western ArtGordon Parks Life WorksSteidlVolume IIAmerica’s Lens in Double Exposure: Through the African American Lens; “Photographing Between the Lines: Beauty, Politics and the Poetic Vision of Carrie Mae Weems,” in Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography & Video, and “Malick Sidibé: The Front of the Back View” in Self: Portraiture and Social Identity. Professor Willis is editor of Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography; and Black Venus 2010: They Called Her "Hottentot", which received the Susan Koppelman Award for the Best Edited Volume in Women's Studies by the Popular Culture/American Culture Association in 2011.  

Exhibitions of her artwork include: Monument Lab Staying Power, Philadelphia; 100Years/100Women, Park Avenue Armory, In Conversation: Visual Meditations on Black Masculinity, African American Museum Philadelphia; MFON: Black Women Photographers, African American Museum Philadelphia; In Pursuit of Beauty, Express Newark, Rutgers University, Newark, “Mirror Mirror” Express Newark, Rutgers University, Newark, NJ; A Sense of Place, Frick, University of Pittsburgh; Regarding Beauty, University of Wisconsin, Interventions in Printmaking: Three Generations of African-American Women, Allentown Museum of Art; A Family Affair, University of South Florida; I am Going to Eatonville, Zora Neale Hurston Museum; Afrique: See you, see meProgeny: Deborah Willis +Hank Willis Thomas, Gantt Center.

Professor Willis’s curated exhibitions include: “Framing Moments in the KIA” Kalamazoo Institute of the Arts, “Framing Beauty” at the Henry Art Gallery; "Reframing Beauty: Intimate Moments" at Indiana University; “Migrations & Meanings in Art” Maryland Institute of the Arts; “Convergence”, Joan Mitchell Center, New Orleans; “Out [o] Fashion Photography: Embracing Beauty,” Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, “Visualizing Emancipation,” Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, “Gordon Parks: 100 Moments,” Schomburg Center; “Posing Beauty Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits” at the International Center of Photography, “Social in Practice: The Art of Collaboration”, Nathan Cummings Foundation, "Home: Reimagining Interiority '' at YoungArts, and “Free as they want to be: Artists Committed to Memory '' at the National Underground Freedom Center, FotoFocus Biennial 2022.

In addition to making art, writing and teaching, she has served as a consultant to museums, archives, and educational centers. She has appeared and consulted on media projects including the documentary films such as Through A Lens Darkly, Question Bridge: Black Males, a transmedia project, which received the ICP Infinity Award 2015, and American Photography, PBS Documentary. Since 2006 she has co-organized thematic conferences exploring “Black Portraitures” focusing on imaging the black body. She holds honorary degrees from Pratt Institute and the Maryland Institute, College of Art. She is currently researching two projects on photography and the black arts movement and artists reimaging history.

photo credit: Laylah Amatullah Barrayn '21