Isaac Julien Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (The Three Graces), 2020 Wet-plate collodion tintype mounted on tulipwood frame Courtesy of the artist, Jessica Silverman, San Francisco, and Victoria Miro, London/Venice

Isaac Julien, Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (The Three Graces), 2020, wet-plate collodion tintype mounted on tulipwood frame. Courtesy of the artist, Jessica Silverman, San Francisco, and Victoria Miro, London/Venice

Online Event

Isaac Julien and Deborah Willis in Conversation

The history of photography and its potential as a tool for racial justice guides this conversation between Deborah Willis and Isaac Julien.

Deborah Willis is a leading scholar in the investigation and recovery of the legacy of African American photography. Joined by artist Isaac Julien, the two will take Frederick Douglass’ interest in photography’s capacity for representation beyond caricature and its potential as a tool for racial justice as the point of departure for this wide-ranging conversation. Willis and Julien’s shared interest in the concept of the photographic archive, extending back to Julien’s landmark work Looking for Langston (1989), will further illuminate the utopian values and ideas that Douglass and his contemporaries shared.

Listen to a recording of Isaac Julien and Deborah Willis in conversation: January 19, 2021

Resulting from Julien’s preparatory research into photographic history at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, NY, the ten-screen film installation Lessons of the Hour—Frederick Douglass (2019) prominently features Douglass’ influential relationship to J.P. Ball, the pioneering nineteenth-century African American photographer. Ball, who is celebrated as a key, overlooked figure in the history of the medium, is the subject of Willis’ monograph J.P. Ball: Daguerrean and Studio Photographer (Routledge, 1993) and featured in Willis’ forthcoming The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Leadership (NYU Press, January 2021).


Isaac Julien, CBE RA (b. 1960) is an artist, filmmaker, and educator whose multi-screen film installations and photographs incorporate different artistic disciplines to create a poetic and unique visual language. Solo exhibitions of his work have been held at ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Denmark; The Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto; MAC Niterói, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; the De Pont Museum, Netherlands; Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; Pompidou Centre Paris; and MoCA Miami. He has exhibited at the La Biennale de Venezia, Johannesburg Biennale, Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, and Shanghai Biennale. Julien is the recipient of The Royal Academy of Arts Charles Wollaston Award 2017 and was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2017. He is currently a Distinguished Professor of the Arts at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he is developing the Isaac Julien Lab. He lives and works in London and Santa Cruz.

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 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. Willis is the author and co-author of numerous publications, including Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present (W. W. Norton & Company, 2009); Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery (Temple University Press, 2012); and Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs (W. W. Norton & Company, 2009); the latter two titles are NAACP Image Award winners. She has curated photography exhibitions at Express Newark, the International Center of Photography, and Indiana University and appeared and consulted on media projects including Through A Lens Darkly and Question Bridge: Black Males which received the ICP Infinity Award 2015. Willis is the recipient of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. 


Aperture, a not-for-profit foundation, connects the photo community and its audiences with the most inspiring work, the sharpest ideas, and with each other—in print, in person, and online. Created in 1952 by photographers and writers as “common ground for the advancement of photography,” Aperture today is a multi-platform publisher and center for the photo community. From its base in New York, Aperture produces, publishes, and presents a program of photography projects and programs—locally, across the United States, and around the world.

The West Coast premiere of Lessons of the Hour includes an exhibition of Julien’s related photography and selections from the McEvoy Family Collection that further explore questions of identity, justice, history, and image-making in the film installation. New Labor Movementsa resonant original program of film and video shorts curated by Leila Weefur, explores contemporary visions of America and concepts of transnational Blackness. A series of online conversations with these artists and invited thinkers and scholars take place throughout the run of the exhibition. The project is produced in part with the partnership of the Isaac Julien Lab at UC Santa Cruz. Led by Julien and his collaborator, Mark Nash, the Lab offers an intensive research-based graduate program that emphasizes partnership and inter-disciplinary collaboration with contemporary artists, curators, and institutions across the globe.

This conversation is co-presented with Aperture.