Shortly after Rutgers University–Newark launched its collaborative community space Express Newark in January 2017, a new photo exhibition graced its hallways in the newly renovated Hahne’s building.
The exhibit, "Deborah Willis: In Pursuit of Beauty: Imaging Closets in Newark and Beyond," features large, colorful images that explore the ways beauty is represented through the intimate space of the closet by depicting people through their articles of clothing.
Shine Portrait Studio at Express Newark mounted the exhibit, its first large-scale artistic endeavor, which stops visitors in their tracks as they navigate all three floors of the beautiful nearly two-year-old facility.
On December 14, the Studio’s publishing arm, Shine Portrait Studio Press, will host a launch party for a book based on the exhibition, titled, In Pursuit of Beauty: Imaging Closets in Newark and Beyond, together with a talk given by Willis and her son, artist Hank Willis Thomas, that is part of the L+M Lecture Series.
“We’re excited to celebrate the release of this gorgeous photobook by an artist and scholar of major importance,” says Nick Kline, Associate Professor of Photography and Founder/Director of Shine Portrait Studio.
Willis’ photographs in Express Newark have felt like being surrounded by family portraits, adding warmth and depth to the space.
The large 200-page softcover book features Willis’ photographs from the Express Newark exhibition, as well as images from an earlier series she did exploring beauty, which are used to contextualize the largely Newark-based project. More than 100 color images in all are included, along with an introduction by Kline and a range of critical essays and interviews, plus testimonials and image contributions by participants whose closets were photographed and RU-N students.
The book was designed by RU-N Assistant Professor Chantal Fischzang and edited by Kline and Kalia Brooks-Nelson, who curated the exhibition. It was supported in part by a $16,000 inaugural Third Space Grant, given by Express Newark in September of this year.
Willis and Brooks-Nelson co-created the exhibition as part of the 2017-2018 inaugural residencies with Shine Portrait Studio. Willis is University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she teaches courses on photography and imaging, iconicity, and cultural histories visualizing the black body, women and gender. Winner of both MacArthur and Guggenheim grants, she is both a celebrated photographer and one of world’s foremost scholars on the representation of black and brown people in photography and the history of African American photography.
Brooks Nelson is a New York–based independent curator and writer who is Adjunct Professor in the Department of Photography & Imaging at NYU and at Parsons School of Design. She has served as a consulting curator with the City of New York through the Department of Cultural Affairs and Gracie Mansion Conservancy and is an ex-officio trustee on the Board of the Museum of the City of New York.
The exhibition, which opened in March with funding support from Express Newark and closes on December 21, plays on the concept of “closet” as metaphor for the psychological parts of ourselves that are kept most private, or hidden from public view. Willis’ images explore these innermost aspects of ourselves through actual closet spaces, offering a glimpse into how we perform our identities and image ourselves to the world.
For the project, Willis photographed the closets of residents in Newark and surrounding towns, New York City and around the world to examine the complex relationship between self-fashioning and identity in contemporary culture.
“Willis’ photographs in Express Newark have felt like being surrounded by family portraits, adding warmth and depth to the space,” says Kline. “And the photobook is a great way to document the project, but more broadly it is a visual narrative, weaving personal and cultural history through a radical pursuit of beauty.”
Shine Portrait Studio provides a 3,500-square-foot photography studio with state-of-the-art equipment and technical support free to use for Newark-based artists, photographers, stylists, fashion designers, entrepreneurs and the entire creative community. It also functions as an art studio for RU-N students enrolled in advanced photography, independent study, internship, and Visual Art senior thesis courses, and is a partner in the Pathways to Academic Success (PAS) high school program facilitated by the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, led by RU-N’s Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies.
Shine also invites outside curators and artists to participate in residencies where they conceptualize community-engaged projects on social issues relevant to Newark and RU-N, while incorporating Kline’s advanced photography students to expand their learning opportunities in the process. The projects may be an extension of the residents’ past work that then focuses on Newark, as in the case of Willis.
“With Deborah’s residency, we didn’t invite her to exhibit a project she’s already done. I invite residents to do new projects and help guide that conversation,” says Kline. “My shaping Shine Portrait Studio as a socially engaged art project, however, largely found its soul through Willis’s scholarship.”
The students Willis worked with were provided a written description of her project before she actually made any photographs, and they were asked to interpret that idea in their own way, refining their concept and photographs for a month for their own Newark’s Closets image collection, and representations of these are included in Willis’ new book.
The book has just been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art Library collections. In addition to artists’ publications, Shine Portrait Studio Press publishes exhibition catalogs, artist books, photobooks and small-edition works. Willis’ book is the press’ second release, and it’s for sale on Shine’s website.