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Photography is not just black or white

by The Concordian February 14, 2012

Artist and professor Deborah Willis lectured on her book Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present last Friday, inviting students to take a closer look at the work of black photographers over the past two centuries.
The discussion was part of Concordia’s ‘Speaking of Photography’ lecture series and focused on images of African-American beauty since the 1980s.
Willis told the crowd that the idea for the book started in the classroom, where she realized that there were no African-American photographers mentioned in any of her history books. Her professor at the time, Anne Tucker, suggested that she do a term paper on black photographers.
“I didn’t know the rules of how to research, so I went to the library and looked through newspapers and city directories. I had an unusual way of looking for and finding information,” she said.
Five years later, Willis got a call from a publisher asking her to do a book on black photographers. In 2009, the book was published, showcasing more than 250 photographs from different African-American photographers.
Lecture series organizer Martha Langford has known Willis for many years and was pleased to invite her to speak at Concordia.
“She is an outstanding expert in African-American photography and the history of photography in general,” Langford said.
Willis spoke on the subject of black photographers and the process of examining photos featured in her book. She displayed a number of photos of African-Americans from various decades. One in particular was of Sarah Baartman, a South African woman who was exhibited as a freak show attraction in the 19th century. Willis showed a cartoon depicting Baartman half-naked with exaggerated buttocks and with a cigarette in her mouth.
“The body of the black female was seen as labour, seen as grotesque and also seen as humourous,” explained Willis.
Concordia student Adrienne Johnston attended the lecture for a class and because she is an admirer of Willis’ work.
“I had been aware of Dr. Willis’ work, as she is a really prolific writer,” said Johnston.

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