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Updated12/23/02 03:44:02 PM

Arts & Entertainment . . .

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Writings and photographs by Carla Williams.

The Black Female Body: A Photographic History
by Deborah Willis and Carla Williams
Temple University Press, February 2002

Visit Williams' website
or look over the complete list of illustrations for The Black Female Body.

I started to make art as a sophomore in college. I had had no previous interest in it; in fact, I distinctly remember remarking when I was applying to college that I couldn't imagine going and majoring in something utterly useless, like art. I had always liked to make snapshots and I don't remember exactly why, but at the end of my freshman year I decided to take a photography course. You had to be interviewed to take visual arts classes, and me going down for my interview into the basement of the Visual Arts building where the darkrooms were was like Dorothy entering Oz. It was a magical place and I wanted to inhabit it. Because my parents put no pressure on me to major in something practical, I chose to major in photography. I've never regretted that decision.

When I finished grad school, though, I promptly announced my retirement, disillusioned with the financial impracticality of trying to pursue an artistic career, especially because I didn't believe that art should be bought and sold. But this isn't a perfect world, is it? Talking to another artist friend during that hiatus, I said that I didn't consider myself an artist anymore, and she said that she believed that if you are truly an artist, you always are, in everything you do, whether or not you are actively engaged in producing "art" objects. She was right, I think -- during the several years when I didn't make any art I was constantly, almost daily thinking about new bodies of work that I might someday make. I make art now only intermittently, and I would have to say that in my experience it isn't a choice to be an artist, and it is an absolute luxury to be able to practice artmaking.

My self-portraits were initially informed by the history of portraits made by male photographers of their wives, lovers, and muses. I had a very traditional history of photography education, so I was familiar with many of these images early on. Turning the camera on myself, I sought to capture the intimacy of those unguarded moments by the likes of Alfred Stieglitz (though I have little but disdain for him now), Paul Strand, Emmet Gowin (my instructor), and Harry Callahan that were so revered in the canon of photo history. Specifically Stieglitz's nudes of Georgia O'Keeffe were a big influence on me then. I admired the beauty, simplicity, and familiarity in those photographs, and I didn't think it was necessary or practical to wait for someone else to want to make them of me. I also didn't want to make such images of anyone else; because they are so personal I felt I would be imposing my desire too much on another subject. With the self-portrait I could photograph exactly what I was feeling and decide later whether or not to display them. I wanted to know that I could make those kinds of private images myself.

My work was never conscious of race and gender issues until I presented some self-portraits during a critique in graduate school; at the time I was extremely inarticulate about content in my images. An instructor volunteered to try, and she started out by saying what she saw when she looked at them. "I see a young black woman…," she began, and at that moment I realized that my body could never be simply formal, or emotional, or personal. Most viewers would always see a black body regardless of my intent. It was then that I began to look at historical images, which developed into the series How To Read Character. Taking its title from a nineteenth century phrenological handbook by Fowler, the series sought to represent images based on historical texts and stereotypes about women, specifically though not exclusively black women. Each image was accompanied by a photocopy transfer meant to serve as a wall label for the photograph. For example, the three-quarters "portrait" of my buttocks is accompanied by a photocopy transfer of text and images of Saartjie Baartman, the Hottentot Venus. I chose to make them oversized and frame them in gilt frames as a reference to a tradition of presentation within portraiture that did not picture the black female body, let alone a nude body. Using pushpins in some, I mapped out parts of the body like a chart referring to the content of the accompanying transfer.

My more recent work has been concerned with the physical transformation of my body through aging, weight gain, and other changes to my appearance. Filtered through art history and an iconography of presentation that does not traditionally include the black female body, and popular culture that represents it in a different fashion, I have continued to picture my body as it transforms from one phase to the next. Nudity has been essential in my work in that it eliminates the specificity of class and period that is attached to certain kinds of dress and ornamentation. Because I reference historical images, it is important to be able to move more fluidly through time and across categories in the images, using referents from ancient, totemic figures to contemporary, cable-access pornography. I never used to think of the images as self-portraits, preferring instead to believe that I was using my own body to represent a type not specific, necessarily, to me. I don't feel that way now. I see them as highly personal, almost diaristic visual note-taking that function in an ongoing continuum.

Carla Williams, 2001

University Art Museum, University of New Mexico at Albuquerque
The Art Museum, Princeton University
Light Work, Syracuse, New York

Carla Williams is a Rockefeller Fellow in the Humanities at Stanford University for 2002-2003.  Carla Williams is also a Freelance Writer and Editor and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Photography from the University of Mexico at Albuquerque.



Thelma Lear
Family Portraits

Untitled Self-Portrait, 1984 - 1985
Self-Portraits before 1986

Venus, 1994
Untitled Self-Portraits,
1992 - 1997

Rhetoric shockwave movie

Mother and Daughter Schockwave movie
Mother and Daughter,
2000 ©2001

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