Rome Reflections: Dr. Deborah Willis In Pursuit of Beauty

FALL 2019

by Terri Pyle

Cohort ’19

As a 2019 “May-ist” at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts, I enjoyed my first residency in Italy. In Rome, Deborah Willis, PhD, Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging of New York University, was a memorable artist that we had the pleasure to meet at a lovely restaurant near our hotel. After a long day of sightseeing, changing into a black lace dress with bell sleeves was a way for me to respect my cohorts and Rome itself. I was pleasantly surprised to see Dr. Willis at our table, wearing a beautiful purple dress—she just radiated with class. Though Prof. Moro had just introduced us, I knew immediately I liked her style.

American Academy in Rome. Italy. May 2019.
American Academy in Rome. Italy. May 2019.

We went to the American Academy in Rome the next day. Dr. Willis greeted us and graciously introduced us to her “Untitled” work of a white beaded dress behind glass. I instantly thought of Daisy Buchanan from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I wrote my Master’s Thesis on “Externalizing the Self: Clothing as Identity” in the novels of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway, and therefore this antique dress represented my research and passion of clothing as a psychological representation of identity. Designer Muiccia Prada said it best: “Fashion is instant language," and it was something I understood.

Deborah Willis, PhD. Professor and Chair, Department of Photography and Imaging, NYU. Photo  Credit.
Deborah Willis, PhD. Professor and Chair, Department of Photography and Imaging, NYU. Photo  Credit.
Photo of Deborah Willis’,  Untitled (White Beaded Dress,  2017. Digital C-print.
Photo of Deborah Willis’, Untitled (White Beaded Dress,  2017. Digital C-print.

I learned that Dr. Willis is greatly influenced by Gordon Parks’ photography, and part of her time at the American Academy of Rome was to follow in his footsteps around the streets of Rome where he once lived and worked. I researched Gordon Parks’ fashion photography profiled in Life magazine back in 1949; a two-page spread showed black and white photos of local artists, residents, as well as actress Ingrid Bergman and film director/producer Roberto Rossellini. It’s easy to see the elegance translate from Parks to Willis.

Dr. Willis’ new series of photography recently on exhibit at the African American Museum in Philadelphia highlights people’s closets because (as she states in The New Yorker), “I was curious about what made people happy about their clothes” (2018). What a delightful way to cross racial, gender, and political lines—our clothes reveal who we are in a moment, and it doesn’t matter who is wearing them as long as we wear them with joy. If we hold onto those clothes, we can keep that moment in our minds (and closets) forever.

The city of Rome is filled with so much art and beauty and fashion that it is impossible to stop smiling. Taking it all in is the greatest challenge; breathing and absorbing every sculpture, painting, and architectural masterpiece is impossible in three days … but it felt good and right, and remembering every last detail is not quite as important as remembering the impressions of the unexpected. Thank you, Dr. Deborah Willis, for looking for beauty in fashion, and “Re-fashioning the Self” along the way.

Deborah Willis’ publication In Pursuit of Beauty.  Photo credit.
Deborah Willis’ publication In Pursuit of Beauty.  Photo credit.