Cover image for Posing beauty : African American images from the 1890s to the present
Posing beauty : African American images from the 1890s to the present
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : W.W. Norton & Co., c2009.
Physical Description:
xxxi, 243 p. : ill. (some col.) ; 32 cm.


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book Q 779.24 WIL 1 1
Book Q 779.24 WIL 1 1

On Order



As a student in the 1970s, Deborah Willis came to the realization that images of black beauty, female and male, simply did not exist in the larger culture. Determined to redress this imbalance, Willis examined everything from vintage ladies' journals to black newspapers, and started what would become a lifelong quest. With more than two hundred arresting images, many previously unpublished, Posing Beauty recovers a world many never knew existed. Historical subjects such as Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker illuminate the past; Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali take us to the civil rights era; Denzel Washington, Lil' Kim, and Michelle Obama celebrate the present. Featuring the works of more than one hundred photographers, including Carl van Vechten, Eve Arnold, Lee Friedlander, and Carrie Mae Weems, Willis's book not only celebrates the lives of the famous but also captures the barber shop, the bodybuilding contest, and prom night. Posing Beauty challenges our most fundamental assumptions about what it means to be "beautiful."

Author Notes

She has taught photography & the history of photography at New York University, City University of New York & the Brooklyn Museum. She lives in Washington, D. C..

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Willis (Reflections in Black), a MacArthur fellow and chair of New York University's photography department, curates a collection of iconic portraits and snapshots by anonymous photographers in a "history of beauty that merges gender, race, family, class." Willis's words, a distillation of her inquiries into beauty and race, are few-the images speak for themselves. The photographs, organized thematically, reach back to the 1890s and forward to the current first family. Famous photographers share perspective with family photographers and those known only as "Unidentified Photographer." The recognizably famous-James Baldwin, Marian Anderson, Joe Louis-appear along with those known only as "Mom and Friend," "Two women holding magazine, ca. 1950s" or "Barber cutting man's hair outdoors, ca. 1930s." Willis's content is groundbreaking; rarely, for example, are men this adequately represented in a work devoted to "beauty within black culture." For Willis, this extraordinary compilation is "the culmination of my exploration of beauty within black culture and through the medium of photography." For readers, this is a dazzling eye-opener. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

A photographer and scholar and the daughter of a beautician Willis explores the concepts and expressions of black beauty from 1890 to the present, reflecting the sociology, culture, and politics of race in America. Drawing on 10 years of research and photos from archives, galleries, photographers, friends, and family, Willis reflects the broad spectrum of images of beauty over more than a century. She examines how beauty is defined, exploited, manipulated, and marketed. She includes a photograph of a runaway slave described as good looking, as verified by the photo, as well as posed portraits and candid photos, photos of debutantes and clubwomen, beauty-shop photos of hairstyles, and advertisements. In the text, Willis emphasizes that posing indicates the subject's and photographer's expression and interpretation of self-identity and beauty from the new Negro through the 1960s black-is-beautiful era of big Afros; subjects include the famous (Angela Davis, Lena Horne, Muhammad Ali, Sean Puffy Combs) and the obscure. An aesthetic look at black beauty by the author of Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present (2000).--Bush, Vanessa Copyright 2009 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

A portrait of a woman modeling a double V hairstyle, by Charles (Teenie) Harris, circa 1940s; right, Anthony Barboza's "Harlem, 1970." 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's 2006 selfportrait, 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 forever changed the conversation about beauty in American life. After centuries of exclusion and segregation in which AfricanAmerican 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. JENNIFER BASZILE The photographers whose works populate this collection are as diverse as the subjects they capture.

Choice Review

Willis's name has become nearly synonymous with African American photographic history, and for good reason. Her most recent work, while not as indispensable to the college library as her landmark Reflections in Black (CH, Jan'01, 38-2564), combines a stunning collection of images with a brief but relevant art historical discussion. Willis (New York Univ.) gives the beauty discourse, an area fundamental to the disciplines of art history and aesthetics, contemporary relevance by crossing over from the consideration of beauty as a philosophical concept to the recognition of beauty as a site of political agency in the formulation of an empowered African American identity. The hundreds of photographs, including 43 color plates, range from high art compositions to studio portraits to documentary snapshots. The setting for beauty thus shifts from the esoteric art world to the highly cultivated beauty pageant and from the deeply personal family portrait to the funky, expressive arena of the urban vernacular. Although portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama may date the book for some, they should serve as a compelling reminder of the close relationship between visual culture and the political sphere in the modern and postmodern eras. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-level undergraduates and above. E. J. VanArragon Calvin College