Scope and arrangement
The Deborah Willis professional files date from 1944 to 2011 (bulk dates 1980s-1990s), and document her work on photographic publications and exhibitions. The collection is not a comprehensive record of her extensive career, instead focusing more on her earliest endeavors. Prominent projects represented in the collection include An Illustrated Bio-bibliography of Black Photographers, 1940-1988 (1989); Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present (2000); The Black Female Body: A Photographic History (2002); the Smithsonian Institution's National African American Museum Project (NAAMP,1990s); and the "Visual Journal: Harlem and D.C. in the Thirties and Forties" exhibition (1996).
Publication Projects is a chronological grouping of working files for several of Willis's books including, Black Photographers, 1840-1940: An Illustrated Bio-bibliography (1985); J.P. Ball, Daguerrean and Studio Photographer (1993); VanDerZee: Photographer 1886-1983 (1993); and Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography (1994). These files generally feature research materials; correspondence; permissions agreements and contracts; drafts and manuscripts; folders for individual photographers made up of brief biographies, artist statements, curriculum vitaes, and some photocopies of their images; and book reviews and press information. Picturing Us files include drafts of essays from the contributors such as bell hooks and Angela Davis. There are also galley proofs and notes for the J.P. Ball and Reflections in Black books.
The Correspondence files are exchanges with photographers, artists, curators, librarians, archivists, and Willis's collaborators. Discussions are usually professional and related to photography. Many photographers and artists sent Willis information about their work and upcoming exhibitions to keep her informed about African diasporic activities. In addition, these files contain letters from the MacArthur Foundation about their fellowship award; as well as congratulatory cards in response to Willis being awarded the fellowship in 2000.
Exhibitions highlights Willis's curatorial work through a number of institutional and personal projects, including "Black Photographers Bear Witness: 100 Years of Social Protest" (1989); "Self-Evident; Exploring Democracy through Photography" (1995); and "Visual Journal: Harlem and D.C. in the Thirties and Forties" (1996). These files consist of proposals; catalogue and exhibition checklists; memoranda about installations; and drafts of panel texts. Materials for a few exhibitions where Willis presented her own work, such as the solo "Fabricated Memories" at the Project Row Houses (2000) are also present.
The collection holds materials from Willis's doctorate program at George Mason University (GMU) such as her dissertation proposal "Towards a New Identity: Reading the Photographs of the New Negro." Most of the research materials are photocopies and notes from various libraries and archives, which were retained to reflect Willis's developmental process and to contextualize her work. The collection also contains photographic slides from various projects interfiled with some artist statements, correspondence, and other contextual information. A few of the slides are personal images.
The Smithsonian Institution files primarily depict Willis's role in helping to establish the National African American Museum Project (NAAMP) through policy and mission statements; an institutional study; taskforce meeting minutes; outlines of divisional goals; and some collection development files. Willis's curatorial work on the NAAMP's exhibits "Imagining Families: Images and Voices" (1994); and "Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African American Art" (1995) is also documented here.
There are also teaching files for some of Willis's courses such as "Surviving the Lens" held at New York University in 2003; and writing files comprised of drafts for articles, essays, and papers written by Willis.
The collection is arranged alphabetically by category, with the exception of Publication Projects leading the arrangement in chronological order.