MacArthur Fellows Program

Deborah Willis

Historian of Photography and Photographer | Class of 2000

Historian of Photography and Photographer
Washington, District of Columbia
52 at time of award
Published July 1, 2000

About Deborah's Work

Deborah Willis is a leading scholar in the investigation and recovery of the legacy of African-American photography.

A historian of photography and a photographer, she brings an artist’s sensibility to her scholarly and curatorial work.  She has written monographs on J. P. Ball, the nineteenth-century daguerreotypist, and James Van Der Zee, a twentieth-century chronicler of Harlem.  Her other research focuses on contemporary African-American photographers.  Willis has curated numerous major exhibits, including the Smithsonian exhibition Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present (2000), which unites vintage images by masters from the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries with the work of contemporary figures.  Her many books include Picturing Us: African-American Identity in Photography (1994), Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America (1994, co-authored), Visual Journal: Harlem and DC in the ’30s and ’40s (1996, co-authored), A Small Nation of People: W. E. B. DuBois Portraits of Progress (2003, co-authored), and Family History Memory: Recording African American Life (2005).


Willis is a University Professor and a professor of photography and imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Willis received a B.F.A. (1975) from the Philadelphia College of Art, an M.F.A. (1979) from the Pratt Institute, an M.A. (1986) from the CUNY Graduate School, and a Ph.D. (2001) from the George Mason University.

Last updated January 1, 2006

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