Not only is Deborah Willis an accomplished photographer, but she also lectures, teaches, writes books, organizes exhibitions, and convenes conferences. As professor and chair of New York University’s Department of Photography and Imaging, she examines photography’s multifaceted histories. Willis has won numerous grants and fellowships for exhibitions like Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present (2000) and books like Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present (2009). She has generously collaborated with Carla Williams on The Black Female Body: A Photographic History (2002), with Barbara Krauthamer on Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery (2013), and with Emily Bernard on Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs (2009).
Willis’s current project concerns Gordon Parks’s photography in Italy, when he was assigned to the Paris bureau of Life. A two-page spread in 1949 documented the Via Margutta, a narrow, lively street where hundreds of Italian artists lived and worked. Parks also photographed Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, in addition to landscapes, sunsets, fashion, and street scenes. Willis plans to follow in Parks’s footsteps—literally— by “revisiting the Rome sites where he worked as a journalist, fashion photographer, and artist.” Her project is both scholarly and creative: “I plan to read Parks’s diary pages, letters, and articles about his experiences in Italy that I am currently collecting from his archives. Inspired by Parks’s fashion photography and his focus in photographing artists at work, I will re-create some of the iconic street scenes that form the basis for his work. I will also photograph fashion scenes that inspired him in the 1940s in collections and museums in the area.”