WVFC: Deborah Willis' Pictures Tell the Story of the Obama Campaign

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Deb Willis
On Friday, WVFC readers in Philadelphia (or willing to travel there) can meet noted boomer photographer  Deborah Willis, who will be signing copies of her new book  Obama: The Historic Campaign in Photographs at 5:30 p.m. at the  African-American Museum of Philadelphia (7th and Race Streets). Willis,  Professor of Photography and Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts, has long been equally famous as a world-class photographer and as curator of other important images of and by African-Americans. Her books include Family History Memory: Recording African-American Life; Reflections in Black: A History of African-American Photography;  A Small Nation of People: W. E.B. DuBois; and African American Portraits of Progress.

Willis spoke with WVFC editor Chris Lombardi a few weeks ago about the book; about men, women and photography, and about how something as seemingly ephemeral as a political campaign fits into the greater history she has spent her life lifting to air.

As a photographer, you've been a Visiting Artist at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbia College, Light Works, and the Rhode Island School of Design. Yet your renown comes equally from your work as a national collector and interpreter of African-American photography. What came first?

I began my worked as a photographer and began curating at the same
time, in the late 1970’s. I had to. There was such a lack of African-American images
in the greater world, in exhibition. So the trajectory started at the same moment. It was like the title of that August Wilson play: two
trains running at the same time.

How do you balance the two threads? It’s not planned. I just find the necessity to continue the work. Work to me is just like getting up in the morning.

photographers I know seem ruled by ego
. It is true for many of them. Sometimes I
wish I had that kind of sense about self. But I also understand that
often it comes with a lack of commitment to do the kind of honoring of
community that is essential.

Congratulations on the great book. How did it come about? And when did you involve Washington Post reporter Kevin Merida, who writes the overview essay?

As the experience of the campaign transformed over the year and a half, I'd started thinking about the campaign and the images we had seen. So I started collecting ideas and themes that I saw were bring repeated: Tears. Joys. Respect. Curiosity. I wanted to analyze that, and use them in my teaching—I’ve been teaching a class in iconic images. I'm very interested in how icons are created.

I thought it was important to have someone like Kevin Merida, who’s covered six presidential campaigns.
The publisher put us together, but we became fast friends once we started working together.

These days, everyone's snapping campaign photos from their cell phones. Yet I thought at first these were all professional photographs: they're all good.

There’s a mixture of professional photographers, cell phone cameras from people who attended rallies, and student photographers. Everyone felt that they wanted to be part of this moment. Some professional photographers didn't want their work included, and I wanted to make a tribute to their work. But the experience was also that of those other photographers. It was kind of a stop-action moment for all.

And your criteria were focused on the themes you mention?
I’m already using the book in my teaching around these themes—to show how people become icons, part of history, simultaneously adored and objects of curiosity. For example, people want to touch icons. Over over in these photos, they reach out to touch his hand. Also: smiles, babies, autograph seekers. And the cellphone cameras sticking up out of the crowd, that becomes another theme image.

As a photo curator I responded to the themes, to the emotive quality of the work, and the individual photographer. I'm always looking at the photo as an object: the background and foreground, what's being chosen.

That image of Obama's 2007 campaign launch, on the steps of the state Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, has
become an icon already. Yet it comes quite late in the book.
That image leads Kevin’s essay. It’s the transition moment to Kevin discussing history.

Did you see any difference in the work of men and women, in these photos? With photojournalists, there generally doesn't seem to be a difference. But in art photographs and amateur photography, many women are photographing personal images, of families, images that reflect what it means to be a woman. Think about that image of the Scrabble necklace that spells Obama [by Scout Tufankjian]: I think a woman found a way to wear jewelry, a woman who documented history, and a woman photographer caught it. And it's placed next to an image of a the guy with a lapel pin of JFK. That was taken by a male photographer [Preston Kores]. Similar ends, different techniques and focus.

I know you've done work on family images in the past. And in some ways, these feel like family photos. Was that intentional? 
That’s what I wanted, to have a sense of intimacy. There are
individual families, and a sense of a greater family surrounding them.

Talk to me about that photo in front of the old house in Butte, Montana. It looks kind of sad to me. That's surprising; you're the first person to say that. David Burnett, the photographer, had been following the campaign from the beginning. I think he captured the feeling of small town, old town at the same time. It was about a celebration with family, in the unlikeliest of spots.

Barackb-ballHow many images of him playing basketball did you have to choose from? That one looks like ballet.  There were a lot, but I love the way in that shot he’s flying through the air. That’s a wonderful action shot.


On Election Night, you were a book signing at the Schomburg Center, and thus found yourself in another action shot - the middle of in West Harlem, jumping for joy. It was pretty nice. But it's different from the book, which was about the campaign. That would have been historic regardless of who won.


 Any overall concerns about the book, and how people feel about the images? People tend to think that the image is the real person --  someone who
they think will make the change they desire. But people who view these
images have to see them as images, as a document of a time.


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