Artist Prensetation
Deborah Willis: The Black Female Body in Photography



For years I've worked with Cheryl Younger on various projects, and she's helped me think through a lot of different ideas that I've been trying to do, in terms of writing. This seminar has always been important, because I have an opportunity to meet new faces and people who will stay in touch.

This lecture is based on a project that I've worked on for the past six or seven years. Basically, I've been looking at images of the black female body in photography, working closely with a friend, Carla Williams, who lives in California. We decided to collaborate on a project; the book is titled The Black Female Body in Photography, and it's based on our interest in the absence of images of black women. I'm going to start with the notion of why we said, ‘the black female body,’ and not simply a photographic history of black women that does not focus on their bodies. What we found out was that we had a desire to see our own likenesses in the photographic image. We were compelled to seek stories about images that were not stereotypical or objectified in any way. We'll begin to see the categories of what, historically, images of the black female body were. They were mainly the naked, National Geographic format, the Jezebel aesthetic, the neutered black female (which was the ‘mammy’ image), and the ‘noble’ black female, or the ‘noble savage.’ Those are the kind of images that we both identified.

So we wanted to have an opportunity to disrupt the image of what we knew, and experiences of these different people. The history of the image of the female body in photography has been excluded, in terms of the real or normal image We've found images in public archives, as well as in private collections. This slide talk indicates the range of images that we collected, but also, when we started going through photography books, we found some newer images, with different stories. We wanted to address some of these.

I'm going to start with the first slide, which is a photograph by Marion Palfi. I wanted to have this as my introductory image, and talk about the concept of, ‘Whatcha lookin at?’ That's the kind of story that this gesture of this little girl has. Palfi made this photograph in the 1940s in Washington, DC. I think about what Franz Fanon said about what lies at the heart of the psychic reality of racism, is fear. Looking at black subjects is always kind of a fear, in terms of how do we draw parallels to our own experiences and how do we disrupt our own history. Part of what I'm interested in exploring is how do we, again, disrupt images, and then, as this photographer is walking through the streets of Washington, DC, this little girl is my introduction to that experience. She's peering through the camera, as if she is saying, What are you looking at?

What I started out with was this beginning of looking at the Western history of black women. There is the image of Saartjie Bartman, who was a black woman who lived in England, after moving from South Africa, for a number of years. She was put on display in 1810, after being taken out of South Africa. She was put on display because of the difference, because people found her difference as grotesque, or as her sexuality was exploitative, in a sense. These are drawings of her; she died five years later, but she's become known as the ‘Hottentot Venus.’ These are some of the images that are known. There was a play a few years ago on Saartjie Bartman, and it was called Venus, by Suzane Lori Parks. What happened in our research was we noticed that the black woman was prized for two distinct attributes: her physical difference from European standards of beauty and the sexual fantasies that Europeans built up around African women. She was put on display, as I mentioned, and one thing that was fascinatingly horrific about her experience was that, once she died, her genitalia were actually put on display again. She was objectified in her lifetime and in death. Her remains, her genitalia, and her brain were put in a jar, in Musee de l’Homme in Paris.

Recently, there was an article in the paper in Paris that her family–the familial descendants of the Khoi people–want the remains back. There's a big controversy going on there now.

Once, when she was in England, there was a group of people who were upset about this experience of her actually being put on display, so they decided to interview her, and had a court hearing. She would actually walk around in dresses that were held up in the back, and it's interesting to note that, twenty-five years after her death, the bustle came into fashion. We can begin to imagine that Saartjie's sexualized buttocks had something to do with the popularity of the bustle.

As we began to go through some of the images, we began noticing what some of the early photographers were doing. Most of the images were, of course, from Africa. Most of the early photographers we were introduced to in our research were French, and they traveled to North Africa and photographed in many areas there, as well as in east Africa. They were mainly seen as ethnographic images of the exotic other. This photograph is by Claude-Joseph Desire Charnay, and it's fascinating in terms of how we begin to deal with images of women. We see the queen, she's dressed and her face is covered, and her servants are around. Another image by Charnay is three women in Madagascar in 1863. This is part of the J.P. Getty collection. What we found interesting was how these profiles were beginning to develop, in terms of women. As opposed to having an ethnographic section, they would also use these sections of images of women. Three different women, the frontal nude, the back and the profile. We began to see this happen a lot in some of the early images, where they used the ethnographic studies, they were part of this sort of photographic tour of world's fairs and things like that. Starting with Saartjie Bartman, these were the stories that developed as a result of looking at these images.

This is a photograph that is included in the collection of the Royal Anthropological Society. Her name is Ellen; the photographer is unidentified. It's another ethnographic image: Ellen at age 22. You can see these kinds of scaling of how they measured different aspects of her body, with her arm outstretched and her profile. We couldn't use all of the images, because each image costs us around $250. We decided to use this one because it had the meter there, as well as her frontal nudity. What we were interested in examining was how these women were part of the scientific study of the other that began in photography. You can see, also, how character is developed, reviewed and disguised through these profile images and in comparison to European images.

In America, a daguerreotypist, Joseph Zealy, was developing the same type of scientific study. He was hired by Louis Aguzzi to photograph the firstborn blacks on a plantation in South Carolina. These are images that are in the collection at Harvard University. Carrie Mae Weems did a number of projects related to this series of images. Zealy started making images of the four older men and the daughter, Delia. In this next image, we see Delia with her clothes off, exposed. What story is he telling about this young woman's experience? He also photographed a profile of her head. It's not a nude study; it's mainly an ethnographic, scientific study. It's very unceremonious, how he pulls down her dress to expose her breasts. These images are not necessarily sexual or sensual, but are kind of a pornographic display. It's a sort of disavowal of woman's humanity, and a refusal to allow them to control the representation of their bodies, because of these photographers' interests in documenting them.

This is a photograph by Christiano, Jr., in Argentina. As we looked for images, we found similar, parallel styles of representations of black women. This is a young woman with her dress at the bottom of the frame and her breasts exposed. We wondered if this is a story that has developed; are these images only important because it expresses the interest of the photographer in an ethnographic study of the black body? The woman is also seen as an object.

We moved on to trying to explore the difference between ethnographic photography and art. We looked at some of the images by the portrait photographer, Nadar. He made a series of images of a West Indian model, named Maria. She was living in France between 1856 and 1859, and making these images. We began to compare them to the other images he made of European women. Again, in the images of Maria, we see the profile shot, and then she is placed with her breasts exposed. He says that she has a strong carnal presence. She is usually looking off camera; in the nude image, her breasts are facing the camera, but she is gazing off to the side. The question is, who is directing this gaze? Is the photographer developing this pairing of the frontal and profile, and classifying her in each section as a model for pleasure and desire?

This image is by the Abdullah Brothers, who were Turkish photographers who worked in Africa. This is a blind woman in 1862. She's a Muslim, and you can see the way she's dressed. Yet the clothes are peeled back in places, expressly to reveal her breasts. Her portrait has been reduced to body parts.

We found a photograph by Edward Curtis, who is known for his images of Native Americans. This is titled Desert Queen. It reveals his interest in other ethnic subjects. This photograph was taken in 1900; she's wearing a necklace and a sort of Egyptian headdress. Again, her breasts are exposed.

This is an image that was made in New Orleans, of a woman named Marie Lassus, by Louis Rousseau, a French photographer. There's the same experience of the frontal and the profile. When he decided to label this, he didn't label it as a woman of mixed heritage, but as a woman with a Parisian father. The profile is significant because, as ethnographic studies, the photographers want to look at the forehead, for example, to see if it's a ‘Negroid’ forehead. It accentuates the features of the subject. When we began to see the frontal and profile images of this young woman, you see one that could be a family image, and then there's the profile, the ethnographic image, where he's actually identifying her as of mixed heritage.

There's another section that developed, as we moved on in our research, that had to do with the body at labor. There were a number of images where the black woman was placed, specifically as a slave or a servant, next to European or Asian women. This is an image of a Moorish woman with her maid, by Jacques Antoine Felix Moulin, a French photographer. The maid is holding the woman's feet in her lap and looking at her in a very sensualized gesture. This is another image by Moulin, of an African woman with her head wrap, looking off into the distance.

We began to look at these as sexualized images of woman, in terms of that experience of working together, but we also were asking the question of why the photographer decided to study these two figures. A lot of photographers began to frequently pose the black woman as a sexual object. Many used prostitutes, and posed them so as to draw attention to both their ‘exoticism’ and their sexuality. In this photo, you can see how the photographer posed this woman on a lace cloth, with her head wrapped and her legs open and exposed.

These images are from a book called One Thousand Nudes. We are really starting to see the emergence of the stereotype of the black woman as a hypersexualized creature, especially as they are placed in contrast to European women. This is an image by an Italian photographer, of an Italian madam with her Ethiopian prostitutes. You can see how the madam is putting her girls on display, and showing the possibility of availability.

These are some photographs from New Orleans. They are police photographs of prostitutes. We found through our research that the name for these women was ‘fancy girls.’ They were light-skinned blacks who were hired to walk the streets of certain quarters and pick up white men. The money that they earned was used to advance the struggle of the American civil war, on the side of the North, so this practice was helping to free the slaves of the South. The money was recycled, in a sense. These police mug shots were on cards, and on the back is information such as the size of their feet and what kind of shoes or clothes they were wearing. When you look at them closely, the women are quite weary-looking.

As we begin to look at some images of body reclining, we get into the world's fairs phenomenon of human display. You can see the development of this history, starting with Saartjie Bartman. We can also compare Manet's Olympia to some of these photos. In terms of positioning, the patterning after Olympia creates a kind of male fantasy. In researching the world's fairs images, we discovered, among other things, that often times it would be winter time, and the women would be forced to wear these authentic-looking costumes. Some women actually died because of the exposure of their bodies to the cold. But the fair organizers wanted to maintain a certain image of authenticity around the women. Some of the ethnographers of the time even decided they didn't have to go to Africa; they could just go to the expositions and educate themselves about the ‘other’ by photographing them in these environments. Here, we see this image, called, The Bushmen and the Hottentots, from 1889. The woman is actually seen without a head, and with just this sexualized body. Her breasts and her buttocks are accentuated.

There are a number of young photographers working in the 1990s who are revisiting the whole issue of the Hottentot Venus and exploring the story of Saartjie Bartman. This is work by my collaborator, Carla Williams, photographing her own body, asking the question of what it means to be put on display. She started making photographs of her own body; in the early 1990s her series was How to Read Character. She accentuated aspects of her buttocks by moving the camera back and forth. This is kind of a humor image, in terms of how we objectify each other. Coreen Simpson is photographing a black woman who has a look of astonishment as she looks at another black woman in a tight dress in a club. She is surprised that this woman would expose her body in that way. It's a way to begin to see stories about ourselves.

This section here that we're using is of the celebrated body. This includes the experience of Zora Neale Hurston. Carl Van Vechten created a series of photographs of black subjects, and this is a piece that she actually likes and writes him a letter saying how much she likes the photography. We looked, hard, for images and texts by women who talked about their photographic image. Sojourner Truth is one and Zora Neale Hurston is another. There were very few images we could find that were accompanied by text. Zora Neale Hurston wrote back to Van Vechten, I love myself when I'm laughing and then again when I'm lookin' mean and impressive. It's really fascinating to begin to see how important it is that the subject ask the question and respond to their own body image. We began, then, to see the body of the performer, such as Josephine Baker. Not until almost one hundred years after Saartjie Bartman did Josephine Baker actually take control of her body. She knew how to ‘mug’ for the camera, how to shimmy her body, and actually put her body on display in a way that celebrated the difference of the black female body. She became the sensation of Paris, and was known as the most sensual woman anywhere, because of the way that she took control of her body. In one of the earliest images here, the costume was designed by a French man who also made this carousel. This is a photograph by Eugene Atget, and it's an interesting way of looking at difference. This carousel is used as a way of, again, objectifying black women. You see them as domestic workers carrying men and women on their backs, around this carousel. They were big-lipped, the mammy's holding the white baby, and you're sitting on their backs. Again this is the same man who designed Josephine Baker's sexualized costumes.

This is a photograph of Pearl Bailey, also by Van Vechten. Here's another, of Maudelle Bass, by Edward Weston. She was the only black model that Weston photographed. He wrote in his diary that he was looking for a black model, but he wanted a big, black subject. He says, If I had a nude body to work with, a Negress, a black, fat, Negress, then I could have worked. This desire keeps popping into my head. Eight years later, he found Bass, who did not exactly fit his ideal. He made at least eighteen different studies of her, in Carmel. She was also photographed by a number of well-known photographers during this period, including Bravo.

Then, in the 70s, we see the notion of the black female body, as object and subject, begin to reappear in the nation's public eye. Jean-Paul Goude, a French photographer, began photographing black women, partially dressed. He called these part of his ‘private vision’ of how to look at the black subject. He decided to photograph different subjects in different ways. Of course, there was a focus on the buttocks; he decided to look at the black female butt as a table, as a way of showing the ‘difference’ of black women. He photographed Toukie Smith, and it's kind of degrading, how he dealt with her. He begins to dehumanize Smith. He wanted to make her taller; he began to cut her in different sections. The ideal was to create the difference. He made a cast of her here. He said:

The real Toukie was a step in the right direction, but she was not quite like my drawings. I had to see my dream girl for myself, and also show others my concept of beauty. So I started chopping the replica as I had done with the photographs, elongating limbs, widening shoulders, and on the original statue, Toukie's tits looked unnatural, like silicone jobs. So I chopped them off and made them more natural, like prunes. And as a European, let me pause here to say, I have the advantage of being able to describe my romantic conception of blackness from a white point of view. My conception is free of all social connotations, because I am a European. Americans cannot dissociate themselves from the social implications of their artistic evaluations of black people. So I really find myself in a strange situation, because on one hand, liberals are embarrassed by my attitude, while racists ironically misinterpret me as one of them. And the blacks, I'm not sure. I think my conception may appeal to some of them, I'm not sure.

He goes on to create this image about Toukie:

I've always admired black women's behinds, the ones who look like racehorses. Toukie's backside was voluptuous enough, but nowhere near a racehorse's ass, so I gave her one. There she was, my dream come true, in living color. I saw her as this primitive, voluptuous, girl-horse.

So we begin to see how women became complicit in creating black woman as subject and object. Here we see Toukie in the background, smiling. Here is a photograph he did of Grace Jones; he was known mainly for his photographs of Jones. Here she is in Roseland, on a stage, in a cage with the sign, ‘Do not feed the animal.’ He created some really strange situations. This is the first black woman he photographed, Radiah. He met her in the South in the early 70s. He photographed her with her pants bottom open; and then he had her wearing 7-inch high heels. He would take her to all sorts of parties in New York City during this period.

It's fascinating to look at Lorna Simpson's work, and what she was experiencing in dealing with the body of the female. You can see how we are beginning to deal with body as beautiful, and the lesbian body. Here is an image accompanied by text, which used as a story, creates a way to read the subject.

This is a work by Cathy Opie, called Dyke Deck. She creates these humorous cards of different subjects. This is a section we wanted to explore, that of notions of the lesbian body in photography. Cathy made a set of playing cards. In the Dyke Deck, the femmes are diamonds, the jocks are clubs, the butches are spades, and the couples are hearts. The nine of spades is a basketball player, dressed like a jock, holding the ball. It plays into the stereotype of black people as natural athletes.

Again, we are dealing with the issue of the body as labor, in images from the 30s. There is a passage that Richard Wright wrote: Each day, when you see us black folk upon the dusty land and on the farms or upon the hard pavement of the city streets, you usually take us for granted and think you know us. But our history is far stranger than you suspect, and we're not what we seem. Here's a woman, in a studio, photographed by a black photographer, in a maid's uniform. In the other image, we have the same subject, dressed as the ‘other’ woman, in her Sunday best, with jewelry, earrings, and her hair combed differently. This is the image she would probably want to preserve, not the one as her role of servant.

Coming up through the 90s, here's an image by Lorna Simpson, where we are looking at the experience of the worker in the present-day, and the difficulties that black women have finding work. This is one of her early images, called You're Fine, You're Hired. It's based on an experience she had after graduating from school; in applying for a job just answering telephones, she had to have an EKG, an eye test, a urinalysis, a blood test, and a number of others. After all this, it was ‘you're fine, you're hired;’ she was welcome into this job answering phones. Once she was hired, she found out that no other black woman had worked there, and no other woman or man had had to go through the tests that she had to go through.

This is Pat Ward Williams, also dealing with the whole notion of the black body as ‘labor’ or ‘unemployable.’ It's called Negro Poster Girl, from 1989. It's kind of a meditation on her experience of looking for work during the 80s and the affirmative action years. She was always a candidate for the interview, but not a serious candidate for the appointment. She had to fill out all sorts of affirmative action forms about race, age, and color and hair, in front of the smiling face of the interviewer. Her face is distorted because she didn't know what was happening. Each time she went on a job interview, friends would send her flowers. So she decided to keep the dried flowers and create this piece about being a "Negro poster girl," only as a candidate for the interview.

Roshini Kempadoo, who works in England, uses images of women on dollar bills, pesos, or pounds, to actually experience women who work hard to reconfigure their lives. She created this subject, and these are different photographs used in different aspects. The piece is called, European Currency Unfolds. It uses both family and historical images to explore the impact of colonialism and hierarchy, racism and sexuality, on popular culture and the daily lives of women.

There are so many images in archives of women as ‘mammies’ and laborers. Here we see this young girl as a subject for holding the child. She is the fixed subject, there only to hold the child. Many of the mammy images that we found never identified the woman by her birth or last name, but only as the object of longing of another person.

This is One Maid by Carrie Mae Weems. It says, ‘Your resistance was found in the food you placed on the master's table.’ She was actually using text to play with the subject of the mammy image and how they dealt with resistance and how they survived during this period. She flipped the image and used the text to tell the story.

Andy Warhol made a series of mammy images during the 70s and early 80s. This is part of the four-part series, with the mammy and the handkerchief scarf and the wide smile. This is an image by a Benetton photographer. They try to deal with this binary of black skin and white skin in selling a product. They allowed us to use it, but they also wanted us to put in their quote about the image. They said that the black community and the US reacted strongly against the image, because, in their opinion, it perpetuated the stereotype of the black nanny.... The true spirit of the photograph, that equality goes beyond the knee-jerk reactions and conventional conceptions, was, however, understood internationally. The photograph received awards in Austria, Denmark, France and Poland, and in Italy it won the grand prize for the best print campaign. The photo became the most awarded image in Benetton advertising history.

This is by a black photographer, Prentice Polk. He invited this woman into the studio to photograph her. I talked to him, before he died, in the early 80s, about this image. He said that he wanted to sort of change her, and give her a different kind of look, and she wanted this image. He titled this piece, The Boss, because she took control of her photograph, with her well-worn scarf and well-worn sweater. She said she was the breadwinner of the family, and she wanted to show herself as she saw herself. We are beginning to see how women are taking control of their images.

These are the last twenty slides that we have, and they look at the body as beautiful. We wanted a section devoted to images that we don't usually see. This is what we call the ‘Uplift the Race’ kind of image. They counteract some of the stereotypes that we normally see of the black female subject. We discovered in going through early photography that it was very important to have props in photographs, like books, because they wanted to counteract images of the uneducated black subject. These are some of the photos that we used. This is an image from Brazil. There was this society of women, after slavery ended in Brazil, that organized themselves to take care of the older women in the community who had no place to go. They created a sisterhood where they took care of each other and raised money. Each August, they still celebrate and meet.

This is a photograph by Richard S. Roberts of a woman who moved to New York in the 30s, from South Carolina. She was educated in New York to learn how to be a mortician. Her family was well-off; here she is, bringing back the style of New York.

Here again, we see a graduating senior, with a diploma in her hand, during the 1918-1920 period. We can begin to counteract the image of the uneducated black woman.

In the sixties, there were a number of black photographers who began to redefine the notion of the black female body in pregnancy. They photographed it with great pride. This is Beuford Smith, with Rainy Afternoon in Brooklyn on a Roof. This is work by Harlee Little, from the 70s, dealing with black female fertility and the transformation of the body.

This is work that I am doing, focusing on black female bodybuilders and how they develop their bodies and their interest in constructing their own definition of beauty. Her name is Nancy Lewis; she lives in Germany. We may find the muscles as difficult to imagine, but she also has these delicate, manicured nails.

This is Joy Gregory, using a series called Instruments of Beauty. It focuses on things like earrings, fake hair and fake eyebrows, and the ‘right’ kind of panties to wear, etc. She's a British photographer who's been making images about objects of beauty and how we define beauty.

Here's Cynthia Wiggins. I actually met her through Cheryl. This piece is called Perceptions, and it's about the different ways black women are read and perceived.

Then Carrie Mae Weems created this series about four women. There's the black power woman, Elaine. She began to ask the question of the issue of beauty and power in regards to black women. She's dealing with the autobiography of the black female body. The four women are named Peaches, Liz, Tanika and Elaine. It identifies and typifies, for her, the experiences of different communities, and suggests that each woman depicts this experience. She writes, Peaches' hair is in a wild Afro style and she's wearing a leopard-patterned strapless bra and a wrap skirt. Elaine looks like a Black Panther with her fist raised and the Panther uniform: black leather coat, beret and dark glasses, popularized by former Black Panther Elaine Brown. No, really, I'm shocked. The images of black women are just downright strange. She's talking about the differences in the history of women. In some cases, the images are so monstrously ugly that they scare me. Indeed, if I was as ugly as American culture has made me out to be, I'd hide my head like an ostrich in the sand. In some cases, like that pickaninny or beautiful African queen, these images are so unlike me, my sisters or any woman I know. I didn't know it was supposed to be me. No, really, in history, in media, in photography, in literature, the construction of black women as the embodiment of difference is so deep, so wide, so vast, so completely absolved of reality, that I didn't know it was me that was being made fun of. Somebody had to tell me. To lift the voice in laughter and saying something I don't always know what was being said, we don't laugh to keep from crying. We laugh to keep from slapping the inventor of this crazy mess, images, upside his head. Cuz you can bet on that, it was made by a man. She begins this construction of this voiceless black female fighting back against these images.

I will end with that, and open up the floor to questions.

Audience: I would like to know what your thoughts are on the successes in the past year of the Sudanese model, Aleck Wek. That's been somewhat controversial. Are you familiar with her? She was on the cover of Elle last year.

Willis: I was so absorbed in my work; I don't know a lot about it. That's unfortunate. I was trying to get the book finished, and that was more information than I could deal with at the time. I did see her when I was in France, while doing my research. She was at the Louvre. She's a beautiful woman. But I didn't follow her story. Do you want to talk about it?

Audience: I think there are different camps on it. People are thinking that, in some ways, it backs these stereotypes. This is not the traditional European model of color. She herself says she just wants to model, so she's not taking part in the discourse. She just wants to work. Some people are saying it's celebrating this beauty.

Willis: It's very similar to what Grace Jones was saying in the 70s, that she just wanted to model. But then, when we read about her in different books, we found a photograph by Gorman, that was her favorite photograph. She has a hat on with her eyes covered. She didn't talk about the images of Jean-Paul Goude at all. At the time, in the 70s, she said she wasn't interested in this issue of exploitation. But on hindsight, in the 90s, she's kind of removing herself from that.

Audience: I'm realizing that, say, ten years from now, Aleck Wek will realize that, when a lot of the photo spreads that she's in, she's either in a tribal pose or profile. Then there's the Elle cover, when she's surrounded in white; what were the implications of that cover?

Audience: You had the image there that the artist took, of the woman pretending to be a Black Panther. I was wondering why you didn't show more actual Black Panther pamphlets and things.

Willis: Well, this book is about the image of the black female body in photography. That's Carrie Mae Weems herself, creating a piece about the four black woman types that were known during this period. There's the Black Panther woman, the churchwoman with the handbag, the "round the way" girl with the wig and the short miniskirt, and then there's the student. It was these four subjects that she was dealing with.

Audience: So it's kind of the four subjects that were approachable.

Audience: You showed us some images that were provided with texts by the artist, like Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson, and then there were the older, documentary photographs that you supplied your own text on. In both cases, it seems like there's a real need for the text, to sort of contextualize the images. It seems important to let the reader know what the intentions with which the photograph was made, what it meant to say and what it really does say. People could do a sort of superficial reading and pass on, because they're not really looking at all the implications of the photograph. I suppose this is more of a comment than a question. In looking at Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems' work, they seem to set up a photograph that you could misread. Then they give you the text to make sure that you are an active viewer, a sentient viewer that's questioning what you may or may not have questioned to begin with. They seem to sort of play off those visual expectations that have been built up and accepted, then give you a text that will direct you to examine what it is that you may not have even taken notice of. What was interesting to me was the text that you gave with the other photographs, to make sure that they were also contextualized.

Willis: Right. I started photography in the 60s and the 70s, and I didn't agree with a lot of the things that were written in the texts, because I felt that these were not part of what I know of my own or other women's experiences. I was really curious about how people are read. Carla's project was about how to read character. It's an interesting experience to be informed by your own experience, and then re-contextualize the photographs from a more informed perspective. Lorie Novak’s work is really important in telling a story, looking at images of women and young girls she's photographing, what we know about these images that's not in the history books. These are things we need to re-think. That's what I'm really interested in, is how to get these photographs to talk. The reason it was important to find that section on "Uplift the Race" images was that, when I was in school, the only images of blacks were of women working in the fields. They were beautiful photographs and beautiful women, but I did not see a range of the experience of the black woman. There were free blacks; they were working class and middle class. But we grew up with these stereotypes and prejudices about black people because of these images.

Younger: I think it's about reading the cultural and social texts that are embedded in the images, too. How do we know that we're reading the same ones?

Audience: I'm curious; I know that a lot of your work has been devoted to either woman photographers or images of woman. But it does seem to me that a lot of what you've uncovered you could find a complement in the black male body. I'm wondering why you didn't include that?

Willis: Well, that's another book I have. My editor does not like the title of my book. I'm serious; I need help! I really do try to balance things out: there are a lot of male images in that book, because there were so many female images in this one. The title I had was Reflections and Likeness: A History of African American Photographers. He says that they did a market survey around Norton, and it was just too generic. So I came up with Reflecting B(l)ack. He said that's a ‘down’ market title. He suggested something like, Their Eyes Were Watching. Of course, I groaned. That sounds like an old Negro spiritual. But he thinks I have to be much more poetic. I have to call him back at five with a new title. I really find it fascinating. I want to do a project on race and publishing, because the way that I see something and the way the market sees it are two different things. It can't be too ‘black.’ There are some beautiful images of black men in the book, and we're dealing with how those men were perceived. So I'm working on that subject. It's true what you said about balance. I'm interested in a new Negro image in photography. Have you ever heard of that term? Well, the chair of my department hadn't ever heard of it. He said he didn't like the term, and that I needed to do something about race. The "new Negro" was a term that was framed in 1895, when Booker T. Washington and other blacks were looking to take away the image of the stereotypical black as lazy, poor and non-working. I'm looking at men in that period, and how men were viewed as subject. It's difficult, even in 1999, to retell the story of the history of the black people, specifically because of the history of the images that is already known and believed. There are some really interesting writings that I've discovered recently.

Audience: I have a couple questions. Have you found any images of interracial black people? How do you think those people are represented in the history of photography?

Willis: Well, a lot of the images I showed today were of mixed-race people. Many of the slave masters fathered children by black women. We found in our research that, in terms of body as labor, many of the women were impregnated to perpetuate their race and perpetuate workers. They had children for the masters, so that those children would grow up to work for the masters. A lot of the images are of mixed race men, women and children. But because of this ‘one drop’ law, that if you have one drop of black blood, you're black. That's something that goes in this country. There's a new experience now, of mixed race people accepting that law. It's being written about now.

Audience: I know it's not exactly photography, but I was wondering what you thought of the controversy around Kara Walker's use of racial stereotypes, with exaggerated features and so on.

Willis: That's another thing I haven't dealt with. A lot of people want me to get into that. I did look at the book. I am interested in experiencing her images in a different way. Because I've been so focused on this book, I haven't had the time to really look at it. You have a colleague here, Kianga Ford, who has been working and writing about Kara Walker. She'd be a great person to explore that question with. Do you want to say something about it, Kianga?

Kianga Ford: I don't know how much to say in a general way. She's a young artist whose work is largely site-specific silhouettes. She does all her work on the premises; she shows up, looks at the wall, and then she makes a piece. Her last piece was at CCAC in Oakland. They are silhouettes that are basically ante-bellum scenes. They're non-narrative, but they tend to work in the style of a cyclorama. They usually fill up a wall in circular spaces. There's been a lot of response to the images, because they're very overtly sexualized, very scatological, and have a kind of visceral quality to them. I've talked to a lot of people about it. I think it's an interesting way to look at a generational strategy. We're seeing Kara Walker working through the same issues as Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems, but from a different perspective. It's a kind of reclamation of history that looks at the degradation of history that happens in the historical fantasy. I think there's a way we can look at it without reacting to just the stereotype. It's more about the circulation of fantasy.

Willis: I know that, from what people have said about it, I believe people like Kara need to be responsible, and know about the images that she's making, that they're going to spark some difficult responses. I don't know a lot about her, but I know that some people are offended by the way she displays the black female body as an entry, or euphemism, for the white man. She needs to be responsible and think about what happens once it is out there. When we recycle these stereotypes, we need to be conscious of it. Both of you have asked good questions that remind me that I need to sort of lift my head and look around at some other things, after being so deeply focused for five years.

Audience: In your book, you've taken images from throughout photographic history: images of labor, images of women. I'm curious as to what role those images have played in, say, throughout the histories of labor photography or photography of women. Are they usually included? What role do they typically play in the discussion of these histories? Do the issues of race usually come up within those categories, or not?

Willis: It hasn't. The only images we know of are Doris Ullman's photographs of the Gullah plantations and Gullah people. Then there are images that historians use as simply illustrations for their texts. But no one has actually looked at the images that we found. We've seen the images of tobacco workers. What we found was that it was ten-and fourteen-year-old girls working in these factories, but there's no discussion of that. What we wanted to do was almost create a new canon, within which people could look at and discuss these images. A lot of the archives that we bought images from were really happy to get these images out there, because most people don't know what they have in those archives. When I went to France, the enthusiasm that I received from the archivists and librarians was overwhelming. There were entire boxes of photographs that they were pulling out. It was a fascinating experience. But no one has really talked about what you are saying, in terms of the context and history of these images. We have pockets of images that we all know, of women with tattered clothes, holding babies, or tenant farmers. We didn't use a lot of FSA photographs, because we know that they are re-used and recycled all over the place. The few that we used, we wanted to compare, in the same town, what the white photographers in the FSA were photographing and what the black photographers were photographing. It could have been the same subjects, but there were a lot of differences. We hope that you or anyone else who is interested in these images can use this project to expand your knowledge or create images about these experiences.

Audience: Are you hoping that your project will draw attention to the role that black photographers and the images of blacks played within the history of representation of women photographically, or in labor?

Willis: Well, there are maybe ten black photographers included in this book, and they're mainly of the latter period, because of the women working. What I'm interested in is how we begin to ask the question of how you look at a black woman. I'm aware of the perceptions that people have of black women when they walk into a room; I'm fifty-one years old, and I've been walking through a lot of doors for a long time. The perceptions that I receive are amazing. About ten years ago, a beautiful woman walked over to me and said, You know, you really are articulate. I'm really happy, that was a really interesting talk. You're articulate. I was talking to another friend, and she said, Oh, you got the A-word. I get that all the time. There are perceptions about who we are that have been carried on for a long time, that aren't about who we really are. What we're trying to do is throw away the objectification and get you to see that in these images of women, they have been made the object. These are different stories of why. Explaining what happened in these ethnographic images has really helped a lot of misinterpretation, how they were sexualized, starting with the display of Saartjie Bartman. She was displayed because of her large behind, and actually allowed people to touch it. Then there's the degradation that she experienced after her death at 25, when her genitalia was dissected, put into a jar and put on display. Her body fat was also tested. The scientists and illustrators decided to add a little apron in her vaginal area, to imply that she was highly sexualized because her labia was thicker or larger than that of European women. It's part of that experience that I'm trying to open up the discussion around.

Audience: Are you also interested in the representations of black women outside of America? Do you see that as another project?

Willis: Well, half of the contemporary women working are from England and Europe. I really don't want to do another book. I'm pretty beat. I did three books in a seven-year period. It's ridiculous to think you can change the world. You think you've contributed, then you run into the University Press, who sit on the project because they don't have the money to do what they said they would do when you signed the contract. You're experiencing all these barriers in publishing, so I've decided that I really want to focus on my own photography, which is about women and work. I've been interested in looking at the ‘women's work,’ and photo-quilts. I have three shows in the year 2000 that I need to focus on. I want to get the books out there. We have to continue to keep the publishers interested. They haven't raised enough money to make high-quality images in the female body book. We're really pushing them to do that, because we're both photographers and that's important to us. In the Norton book, we're fighting over the title. I can't use words like ‘gaze’ or ‘looking’ or ‘looking through,’ because it's ‘too academic.’ I really want to focus on my own photographic images of women and work. My images aren't just about black women; they're about women working, period. There are some fascinating stories that I've been documenting. I've been traveling to different cities and photographing.

Audience: Did you end up addressing contemporary media images in your book, like advertisements and entertainment?

Willis: In addition to the Benetton images, we have Lil' Kim, Foxy Brown and Toni Braxton. We're dealing with the contemporary music video world. It's another way that contemporary women are using, and selling, their bodies in a way that parallels how prostitutes use theirs. There's an image that Lil' Kim had in Paper magazine, where she has dollar bills spread around her feet; her legs are open, and it's about money, as she says. We're using her images and talking about how she sells her body through music and music videos. We're looking at that also.



Synopsis by Are Flagan



Not just an image, but a just image, Roland Barthes once remarked about his search for a likeness in the person who made him-his mother. The same word repeated, just reiterated, in the same breath of a sentence changes its meaning not only in the first instance, where the photograph initially surrendered to its natural presence, but also in the second referral, where the same image is introduced to the legitimacy of its representation. A likeness, then, is perhaps the recognition, or rather confluence, of both lineage and legality in a representation that does the subject justice. Deborah Willis' work investigates the prescribed laws used to pass such judgments by examining the judicial methods of the proper, and their implicit reliance on the photographic trace to invoke a continuous rather than disrupted or corrupted sense of lineage. In the last instance, in that curious moment of a truth defined by what came before and what will inevitably follow, she seeks to formulate a cultural allowance based on an individual subject's own rights to express likeness in a recognizable identity.

But as I write, in this customary typeface contrasting black and white, the measure of difference in this text forces me to pause before approaching and appropriating her words. The history that Deborah Willis recounted, and that we both encounter, is based on white males assuming the voices of black females, and it seems pertinent to break the generic presumptions of these typed words before this assumption can proceed. I can not adopt her skin, even in writing, just as she would not fit mine, because the experiences that make both skins characters for a typecast world are separated by the history we share. It must be acknowledged that this difference does not simply operate on surfaces of any color, shape or size, but more accurately (ab)uses them to distribute a certain configuration of knowledge, which makes them stand apart. My task, in her words, could only be to report on what I must learn to approach my own sense of lineage and legality, which constitutes my entire framework of representation, with the knowledge she shared.

Deborah Willis' talk gave a comprehensive summary of her latest collaborative book project on the black female body in photography. The forthcoming publication was undertaken to balance the extremely narrow and stereotypical view of black women perpetuated through the history of the medium - a lineage traced in an incestuous line of images reproduced by the limited scope of a predominant culture. This shortsighted history was given another view in Deborah Willis' presentation, and two main themes can initially be isolated: A study of photographic records from archives used to categorize individuals by physiological attributes, and photographs of labor marked with the ideological signs of the economy they worked for. Put together, this perceptively split personality of biological determination and financial exploitation joined the body of knowledge under scrutiny in a productive force.

The story of Saartjie Bartman was told as an introduction to the display tactics of taxonomic science. Also known as the ‘Hottentot Venus,’ she was exhibited in a cage on a tour of Europe from 1810 onwards, and for the next five years audiences could marvel at her deviance from themselves. The black female Venus was constructed as an ideal Other, both as a measure of normality and danger to morality, in her highly sexualized confinement to the exotic cage of difference. And this method of incarcerated display, breeding segregation through confined spaces, eventually captured the photographic imagination of the human and social sciences; a dominant perception of humanity, with its biological subtext of life, was informed by difference from this moment onwards. Deborah Willis discussed examples from ethnology, anthropology, criminology, and medicine (with the subcategories of physiognomy, phrenology and eugenics) to delineate how the black subject was given a specific role to play in the staging of facts. Common to all these practices, unified by their scientific emphasis, was the purposeful manipulation of the subject to fit established theorems of knowledge. Measuring devices, along with numerical indices and strictly formalized procedures, served to reserve a space for these individuals within the growing archive of manufactured distinctions. Any information the photograph was unable to contain, everything but the inscription of a look, was maintained through these hierarchical methods, this division of space, and the carefully controlled activities that rendered them visible. The black character, developed and disguised in physiological features, is seen only in the scripted desires of these acts.

The desire at work provided a link to the body at labor. Deborah Willis showed numerous images with a scientific pretext and sexual fantasies attached. Almost exclusively, the proven poses of frontal and profile views were photographed in the nude to enable accurate study, but in this respect the evidence of intellectual stimulation was not unlike the naked objects circulated in another economy of desire. Pornography frequently invoked an ethnographic setting, often in a studio set with exotic costumes and props, to present a hyper-sexualized creature in the recognized guise of an object prepared for the pleasure of looking. Just like the documents of science insisted on a bare chest to penetrate the body with knowledge, pornography used the same graphic description to exploit the perceived innocence of study for a similar but less noble purpose. Whether it was the subject of methodical insight or sexual delectation, the black female body was subjugated to a regime of almost identical desires. It was stripped, posed and framed as an object, and the predominant work it would perform in photography was to be acted upon, violated and forced into representational prostitution. Deborah Willis explored this theme in imagery of black prostitutes, slaves and nannies. The use value of black subjects, within the economy that invested in it, was usually tied to their subservient role as servant or slave. Work, the very metabolism of their bodies in cultural production, always belonged to someone else in representation, and only through this system of subjection, rendered objective by the mechanisms of a characteristic model, did it become a useful force. A productive body, in this contrivance, was reduced to the activity of passivity for ideological display purposes.

But the maturing body of knowledge, with its unique photographic epidermis and complex social organization, has a fragile life, and much of Deborah Willis' presentation was devoted to breathe new life into these remains. Photographs of black prostitutes that leaned towards the reclining body of Manet's "Olympia" posed a challenge that an audience once found shocking beyond belief, and with the legacy of Saartjie Bartman in mind, the spectator is suddenly enclosed in another cage when the subject stares back on equal terms. It is this balance the forthcoming book and this talk demanded to address. Some recent photographic work Deborah Willis showed remains caught in the differential structures of prejudice from the last century (it is perhaps photography's destiny to repeat itself), but many contemporary photographers have also approached this visual depository in a more sophisticated manner. All of them see the created stereotype as an imposed monotype, unable to contend with the diverse and expressive qualities of their own subjective work. A more extensive, and certainly more engaging, synopsis of this presentation would in some respects belong to each of them: Carla Williams, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Cathy Opie, Joy Gregory, Cynthia Wiggins, Roshini Kempadoo, Pat Ward Williams, Renee Cox, Ming Smith Murray, and Clarissa Sligh. It would also be appropriate to give Deborah Willis the last word through her photographic work on black female bodybuilders. Another body is taking shape in the dedicated labor of these subjects, beauty is carefully defined by their own powerful actions, and nothing stands between them and the mirror as they monitor progress. Likeness is perhaps an expression of their own vanity, but if strength builds pride in a reflection, it is no longer just an image, but a just image.



Analysis by Bennie Flores Ansell



Feminist discourse of the 70s left a space for exploration in terms of women of color and the implications of their history. Deborah Willis’ lecture and book will fill in some of the pieces for this discourse with the image of the black female body and her beauty. The history of the image of the black female is garnered by Willis and her collaborator, Carla Williams, in the book The Black Female Body in Photography. The book will create a critical base for looking at these historical images. A dialogue will be created with these past images and the present day artists who are shown in the book that work to ‘disrupt’ the stereotypical image and make room for a more complex reading of the black female body.

Deborah Willis takes a frontal and profile look at the history of the image of the black female body in photography. The first image shown in her lecture is an image by Marion Palfi from the forties. This is a poignant image for it shows a young girl in Washington DC gazing at the camera and posed as if to ask the question ‘What choo lookin’ at?’ Or more specifically: What do you see when you look at me? These are the questions I believe that Willis is exploring in this book. The importance of this book to young girls such as the girl seen in this image, as expressed by Willis in remembering the only images she saw of someone who looked like her were ones of people in the cotton fields and stereotypical. If the question is asked why the black female body? It is because of a desire to see a likeness of herself in a non-stereotypical or objectified way. To quote Franz Fanon seeing myself being seen perhaps is the main question Willis is addressing and answering.

Willis begins the history of the image with Saartjie Bartman, otherwise known as the Hottentot Venus. Bartman was put on display for her difference and for her sexuality as seen as ‘grotesque.’ This display underlined the difference that the black female had from the European standards of beauty, as well as the desire for African women and their supposed ‘complicit sexual fantasy.’ She then moved on to show the photographs taken by Victorian ethnographers showing the women as objectified beings, breasts exposed, the black woman seen as object with no control over the way they were photographed. These historical images are not sexual or sensual, but more of a pornographic display for it is a disavowal of woman’s humanity and it does not allow them to control the representation of their bodies. These two elements of history in the black female body image well illustrate the point of the lack of control by these subjects on how they were seen and how they can only be viewed as objects through the gaze of these photographers that it then passed on to the viewer.

Throughout the viewing of these difficult images and the contextualization of them, Willis continued to announce each image with the name of the person photographed. In doing this she gave them back their dignity that was stripped away by the photographers gaze, she gave them a name, making them a person, not just a body that stands in for a whole, reversing the metonymic image, rescinded, for the person had a name and identity beyond the image.

Also discussed were the popular images made in the past twenty-five years of black woman such as Grace Jones and Toukie Smith by French photographer Jean Paul Goude and the implication of these images as perpetuating the stereotypes and ideals of beauty.

Another question that is posed by Willis is: how is beauty constructed? While asking this she showed an image of a black woman putting white powder on her face showing the contrasts of this construct of ‘beauty.’ And how the hierarchy of beauty has been whitewashed for women of color. In her book, she will include artists that disrupt this idea of one defined beauty and reconstruct how black females look at themselves in reaction to and beyond the history of their image. Artists such as Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems have used text to direct the viewer/reader to examine what they have not taken notice of in the image of the black female body. Other artists mentioned were Renee Cox and her ‘Yo Mama’ Series, as well as Carl Van Vechten, Gordon Parks, Cathy Opie, and Pat Ward Williams.

Willis would also like to construct a chapter in this book that she called the ‘Uplift the Race’ images. She is doing this for the lack of a range of images of the black female.

This section of the book is crucial to the ‘disruption’ of the history that has laid out the stereotypical imagery of the black female body. These images cannot erase but can begin a new definition and identity for the black female. A call for a book specifically on the powerful and ‘reconstructed’ images without a preface of the negative imagery is in place.