Carla Williams

Carla Williams is an artist and writer based in San Francisco. Her work as a photographer and historian addresses subjects such as identity, family relationships and memory, race and acts of naming, and ideals of beauty. Self-portraits have played a role in Williams’ body of work since the late 1980s, when she was still a student. Initially, as Williams herself observes, her work provided “an exploration of physicality, beauty, sexuality, power, and pleasure through humor, seduction, and performance” in a way that was not overly deliberate or political. In her self-portraits from the 1990s, however, such as the one included here, Williams began to respond in more knowing and explicit ways to the value granted by society to certain appearances and to the implications, in terms of race and gender, of both historical and contemporary representations of the body.

In 2004 Williams revisted her collection of self-portraits from 15 years earlier and used them as elements in a new photographic project. Titled 1990-2004, this series introduces an additional facet to her investigations of the aesthetics and politics of the body, namely the artist’s personal transformations through the process of aging. Matching the background and lighting of her earlier self-portraits, Williams rephotographed herself and then merged the new and older photographs into a new seamless image. The juxtapositions of her younger and older bodies are consciously understated in that they entice the viewer to determine if the images were photographed at the same time and to look for physical differences.

Williams was born and raised in Los Angeles. She completed a BA at Princeton University, and MA and MFA degrees in photography at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. She is the editor of the Society for Photographic Education’s journal Exposure and has co-authored a number of historical studies, including Black Female Body: A Photographic History, with Deborah Willis (2002). Williams participated in Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence Program in 1997.


BirthplaceLos Angeles, CA
CitizenshipUnited States
Cultural HeritageAfrican-American
Light Work RelationshipArtist-in-Residence, 1997
Fine Print Program, 1997
Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery, 2018 (Be Strong and Do Not Betray Your Soul)




It will eat away at you
by vanity, etching
each time I catch a glimpse
of my reflection I am surprised by
the gray-haired fat woman with
the short hair
that fixes my glance
trying to find links between
the bodies and faces that span more
years than I care to remember

The diary
the means of love, desire, pride
a thing of beauty
your crowning glory
the consequence of beauty,
ugly and interesting
potential charms
your value to men
to women
she asked me
like the reflection, it
hardly seemed like me
physically explicit
this Venus
more feeling than sense

Carla Williams (c)1997

Time is a central element of photography. In an instant the click of the shutter fixes a precise moment in time. While a photographic portrait as a physical object will age and grow old, the image of the person fixed on paper will never change. The subjects hair will never turn gray, their body will never loose its shape, and lines of age will never crease their face.

When we try to describe some photographs made years ago we often use the adjective timeless. Images by Bernice Abbott, August Sander, James Vander Zee, and Edward Weston are a few that come to mind. Weston's portraits of Tina Modotti for example, forever fix her in our memory as a young beautiful independent woman, and at the same time offer us a reference to Modotti as an artist whose own photographs carried her desire with immortal confidence.

During her residency at Light Work Carla Williams made prints from a series of self-portraits that she has produced over the past decade. In this series we see Williams physically change over time. Because she has excluded all references to any particular point in time (clothes, furniture, architecture, etc.) our only reference to time and change in the self-portraits is Williams herself--the length of her hair, the shape of her face, the curve of her body. Some of her self-portraits remind us of Weston's portraits of Modotti, while others recall portraits of Josephine Baker, The Hottentot Venus, and images of anthropological study.
The references of gesture, pose, and mood that Williams makes to familiar images of historical significance gives the series a tone of reflection about the general nature of memory. With these references Williams seems to be asking what purpose does memory serve. In the prose that Williams wrote to accompany this series she expresses surprise in the images of herself, while remaining determined to find links that connect the images of herself together. Perhaps it is the desire to craft a whole picture of herself and her times that keeps Williams looking back for guidance in how to move forward.

Jeffrey Hoone (c)1997