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Former Faculty Member Pierre Desir Remembered as ‘Generous’ Teacher with a ‘Poet’s Eye’

Pierre Desire, in unbuttoned academic robe talks to students
Former VMA faculty member greets students at commencement in an undated photo. Photo/Emerson College Archives

Former Emerson College faculty member Pierre Desir, a cinematographer who was as respected by his colleagues as he was loved by his students, died Wednesday, Dec. 13, in Guilderland, New York. He was 76.

Desir joined the Emerson faculty in the early 2000s. He started the College’s cinematography program and was instrumental in creating the Paramount Soundstage, according to Visual and Media Arts Professor Cristina Kotz Cornejo.

Cornejo said she met Desir at Ithaca College, where she was hired to teach directly out of film school and Desir was on faculty. She said she later learned that Desir had advocated for her being hired, and he eventually became a mentor to her.

“I learned a lot from Pierre as a new teacher,” she said. “I witnessed how beloved he was by his students. They adored him and he adored them. He was dedicated to their growth as artists and filmmakers and individuals.”

Cornejo said she “couldn’t have been happier” when Desir applied to join the College’s faculty. “I knew our students would be in great hands, and of course, they ended up loving him.”

“I feel lucky to have been able to cross paths with him and learn from him,” she said. “While he will be missed, he lives on in many of us whose lives he impacted.”

Pierre Desir chisels a piece of wood
Pierre Desire works with wood. Photo courtesy of Cristina Kotz Cornejo.

Desir worked as cinematographer for acclaimed African American directors, including Billy Woodberry and Zeinabu Irene Davis. He worked on Woodberry’s And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead (2015), a documentary about beat poet and activist Bob Kaufman; as well as Davis’s Compensation (1999), a drama in which the life of a deaf African American woman at the turn of the 20th century parallels that of a woman in the 1990s, and the short Cycles (2003), about a woman performing African purification rituals while she waits to learn if she is pregnant.

Desir was a “warm and generous teacher and friend,” said VMA Professor John Gianvito, who worked alongside him. “For me, he was a filmmaker’s filmmaker, possessed of a poet’s eye and the skills of a fine arts craftsman.”

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