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Renaissance Fine Art invites you to join us for an eclectic evening with Deborah Willis, Professor of Photography and Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Ms. Willis is an esteemed author, contemporary artist, photographer, curator of photography, photographic historian, and recipient of two highly regarded awards: Guggenheim Fellow (2005) and MacArthur Fellow (2000).

Signing by Author 6pm – 8pm
Signed copies available 8pm – 9pm

BOOKS / SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW | December 06, 2009
Holiday Books: Photography
“Posing Beauty” by Deborah Willis

More than 200 arresting. photographs convey the complexity and scope of African-American beauty.

Whether the lashed back of an enslaved person, the charred remains of a lynching victim or a terrified marcher fleeing a fire hose, shocking images of degradation seem to dominate the visual history of the African-American experience. Amid so much hardship, one might wonder what, if anything, to say about the nature of black beauty in photography. Deborah Willis, head of New York University’s photography and imaging department, spent a decade exploring the question. In POSING BEAUTY: African American Images From the 1890s to the Present (Norton, $49.95), Willis makes a monumental contribution to contemporary American culture by presenting a definitive history of black beauty.

The book’s title captures the defining duality of posing: “positioning the subject and questioning the trappings of beauty.” Willis avoids monolithic definitions, and the more than 200 duotone and color photographs capture nearly every African-American skin tone, hair texture and body type. Willis also leads readers through a careful yet broad survey of beauty in every decade since the 1890s. On every page, she tracks changing social, political and aesthetic contexts, but she never allows them to overwhelm the subjects or photographers.

“Posing Beauty” contains revealing photographs of American icons like Madame C. J. Walker, W. E. B. Du Bois, Josephine Baker, James Brown, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Serena Williams, and Michelle and Barack Obama. Many well-known figures appear outside their usual context – Miles Davis is pictured standing in front of his closet. Condoleezza Rice smiles broadly as she holds a football helmet. These unexpected images offer fascinating meditations on the centrality of beauty to each celebrity’s power.

Willis also presents equally striking photographs of waitresses, children on Easter morning and others in the midst of everyday life. The longstanding celebration of black beauty in festivals, pageants and contests might surprise, and even trouble, some readers. The throngs of people who assembled in the 1920s to observe the Pacific Beach Beach Club Beauty Contest probably never imagined they would be captured in the panoramic photograph that marks the event along with the beauty queens in the foreground. If a single thread unifies the images in this amazing collection, it is the subjects’ agency in the conception and presentation of their own beauty, which is itself a radical departure from the more familiar objectification of African-Americans in the nation’s collective visual memory.

The photographers whose works populate this collection are also as diverse as the subjects they capture. Gordon Parks, Walker Evans, Carl Van Vechten, Charles (Teenie) Harris, Anthony Barboza and Annie Leibovitz create evocative works that convey the complexity and scope of black beauty. Carrie Mae Weems? 2006 self-portrait, entitled “I Looked and Looked to See What So Terrified You,” provides one of the most arresting reflections on the relationship between subject, photographer and viewer.

With “Posing Beauty,” Willis has forĀ­ever changed the conversation about beauty in American life. After centuries of exclusion and segregation in which African-Ā­American beauty existed on the margins of the culture, Willis offers readers a thoughtful and nuanced consideration of the relationship of beauty and power. She invites us to marvel at the glamour and elegance contained in the photographs, and in the process instructs us on how to expand the definition of beauty within our national imagination.

In the pages of “Posing Beauty,” readers can appreciate African-American men and women as dandies and debutantes, models and beauty queens, politicians and clubwomen across the generations. The book is a treasure, a triumph and a singular achievement that invites fresh and enduring insights with each viewing.