James Van Der Zee was an acclaimed photographer


James Van
Der Zee
Date: 
Tue, 1886-06-29

On this date, James Van Der Zee was born in 1886. He was an African American photographer whose portraits of Black New Yorkers chronicled the Harlem Renaissance.

The discovery of his archived prints and negatives in 1967 led to widespread interest in his work. James Augustus Joseph Vander Zee was from Lenox, Massachusetts. He shot his first photographs as a boy in Lenox. By 1906, he had moved with his father and brother to Harlem in New York City, working as a waiter and elevator operator. In 1915, Van Der Zee moved to Newark, N.J., where he had taken a job in a portrait studio, first as a darkroom assistant, and then as a portraitist.

He returned to Harlem the following year, setting up a portrait studio at a music conservatory that his sister had founded in 1911. In 1918, Van Der Zee and his second wife, Gaynella Greenlee, launched the Guarantee Photo Studio in Harlem. The business boomed during World War I, and the photographs he shot from this period until 1945 have demanded the majority of critical attention. Among his many renowned subjects were poet Countee Cullen, dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and black-nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Van Der Zee worked predominantly in the studio and used a variety of props, including architectural elements, backdrops, and costumes, to achieve stylized tableaux vivants in keeping with late Victorian and Edwardian visual traditions.

Sitters often copied celebrities of the 1920s and 1930s in their poses and expressions, however, and Van Der Zee retouched negatives and prints heavily to achieve an aura of glamor. After World War II, Van Der Zee's fortunes declined with those of Harlem. He made ends meet with occasional commissions and with a photo restoration sideline. By the time his collection of negatives and prints was discovered by a representative of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1967, the Van Der Zees were nearly destitute. In early 1969, his photos were featured as part of the museum's successful Harlem on My Mind exhibition, which showcased life during the Harlem Renaissance in a variety of media.

Van Der Zee won increasing attention throughout the 1970s, and from late in that decade until his death in 1983, he photographed many celebrities, promoted his work in shows around the country, and was the subject of books and films. In 1993, a retrospective of his work was held at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Van Der Zee died on May 15, 1983 in our nation’s capital.

Reference:
Reference Library of Black America Volumes 1 through 5
Edited by Mpho Mabunda
Copyright 1998, Gale Research, Detroit, MI

To Become a Photographer

Person / name: 

Zee, James Van Der