Professor to Boost Duke Studies of Visual Culture

Deborah Willis, an internationally acclaimed artist, historian of photography and curator, will be the next Lehman Brady Chair professor in Documentary Studies and American Studies, a joint professorship at Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Center for Documentary Studies announced Tuesday that Willis, winner of a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship this year, will hold a joint visiting faculty appointment at the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) at Duke and in the American Studies Curriculum at UNC for the 2000-2001 academic year. CDS coordinates the professorship for the two universities. For more than 20 years, Willis has been a leading scholar in the investigation and recovery of the legacy of African American photography. An accomplished photographer, Willis brings an artist's sensibility to her scholarly and curatorial work. Book reviewers have cited her publications on two centuries of black photography as the bedrock of scholarly work in this field. Most recently she has garnered attention for her book, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present, published by W.W. Norton & Company, and its accompanying touring exhibition. The exhibition, which opened earlier this year in Washington, D.C., was organized by the Smithsonian's Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, where Willis was curator of exhibitions. The book, a collection of photographs of African American life, is a celebration of family, endurance, spirituality and the diverse range of black experience over the past two centuries. Reflections in Black overturns many common ideas about African American life and, in effect, rewrites American history itself. "Deborah Willis brings to the center, Duke, and UNC the most important thinking in the understanding and presentation of photography today," said Tom Rankin, CDS director and associate professor of the practice of art and documentary studies at Duke. "Her experience as an artist, curator and writer will benefit our students mightily, and all of us will gain a rich understanding of our collective visual culture. We are extremely fortunate to have her as our Lehman Brady professor." Willis's awards and fellowships include the International Center for Photography Infinity Award for Writing in Photography and the Golden Light Photography Book of the Year award. Her books include VanDerZee: The Portraits of James VanDerZee (1993), Lorna Simpson (1992), J.P. Ball: Daguerrean and Studio Photographer (1992), and Black Photographers 1840-1940: An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography (1988). She has taught the history of photography at New York University, City University of New York, and the Brooklyn Museum. During the fall semester at both Duke and UNC, Willis will teach "Visualizing Culture," a course exploring the range of ideas and methods used by artists, historians, sociologists, anthropologists and critical thinkers in addressing visual culture. "The opportunity to hold the Lehman Brady Chair offers me the chance to explore my interest in teaching and continuing to develop this class in visualizing culture," said Willis, who created the course last year when she was teaching at New York University. "This gives me the chance to establish a new field of study, including popular culture, advertising art images and the like, along with fine art." The course combines historical and theoretical approaches and addresses the problematic construction of art and vernacular images. In the spring Willis will teach a studio course on both campuses. Students may pursue photography, book art, painting or other forms of visual art, within the context of Willis's emphasis in the course on issues of representation, identity and social history. "Deborah Willis is arguably the world's authority on photographic images of and by African Americans. She's also an engaging individual. I urge all students who are interested in media issues in public policy, visual studies, the history of photography and African American studies to take advantage of her yearlong residency at Duke," said Richard J. Powell, John Spencer Bassett Professor and chair of the Department of Art and Art History at Duke. Joy Kasson, Bowman and Gordon Gray Professor of American Studies and English at UNC, said, "We're exceptionally fortunate to have Deborah Willis join our community this year. No one has done more than she to make a broad audience aware of the contributions of African American photographers, as is stunningly demonstrated in her new book. She will help us all see with new eyes." The Lehman Brady Chair is supported by two endowment funds, one established at CDS by the Lyndhurst Foundation and the other established at Duke by the bequest of Lehman Brady, an attorney from Durham who died in 1995. CDS, an interdisciplinary educational organization affiliated with Duke University, is dedicated to advancing documentary work that combines experience and creativity with education and community life.