From the late 19th-century women photographers established studios around the country creating images about their experiences. Many set up backdrops to resemble their family homes and their daily lives. During that time, only a small number of women were working as photographers but the few who worked as photographers in the 19th and early 20th centuries documented their families and friends. This lecture draws from my interests in women artists and photographers who explore personal and collective memories on beauty from early photography to now. Some of these artists reconfigure old family photographs, while others create entirely new images that reimagine the past. Central to experiencing memory is the image of Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of time and memory—she is often portrayed with a cloth draped over her body. Looking at the unclothed and clothed body by women working in the past has always created tension between conceptualizing and producing work about the female body.
Deborah Willis, Ph.D , is University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and has an affiliated appointment with the College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Social & Cultural Analysis, Africana Studies, where she teaches courses on photography and imaging, iconicity, and cultural histories visualizing the black body, women, and gender. Her research examines photography’s multifaceted histories, visual culture, the photographic history of Slavery and Emancipation, contemporary women photographers and beauty. She received the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship and was a Richard D. Cohen Fellow in African and African American Art, Hutchins Center, Harvard University and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow. Professor Willis received the NAACP Image Award in 2014 for her co-authored book (with Barbara Krauthamer) Envisioning Emancipation. Other notable projects include The Black Female Body A Photographic History, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers – 1840 to the Present, Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present, Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs, a NAACP Image Award Literature Winner, and Black Venus 2010: They Called Her ‘Hottentot’.
The Norma U. Lifton Endowed Lectureship has sponsored a quarter century of talks by eminent art historians, including Eleanor Heartney, Linda Nochlin, Whitney Chadwick, Griselda Pollack, Johanna Drucker, Kristine Stiles, Tsongzung Chang, Gerardo Mosquera, Ann Gibson, Jerry Saltz, Anne Higonnet, Roberta Smith, and Hollis Clayson at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The fund, administered by SAIC’s Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, has been established in memory of Norma U. Lifton, former Visiting Lecturer in the department.