Showing people at their best: James Van Der Zee
Couple in Racoon Coats, Harlem 1932
James Van Der Zee (b. 1886) was a photographer, best known for his portraits documenting Harlem during the late 1910s through the 1930s, during a period of economic and cultural advancement known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Van Der Zee opened his studio in Harlem just as a wave of African American migrants moved from South to North. His body of work during and after the Harlem Renaissance caught his sitters in their best light, through a combination of expert staging, lighting, capturing and editing techniques. Van Der Zee’s archive is co-owned by the Metropolitan Museum and the Studio Museum in Harlem, who are preparing for a monumental new joint exhibition of his work.
“I tried to see that every picture was better-looking than the person.”
Self portrait, 1918
James Van Der Zee was born in 1886 in Lenox, Massachusetts, a small New England town near upstate New York. His parents worked in Ulysses S. Grant’s White House, his father a butler, his mother a maid. At 14, James bought his first camera. He taught himself how to use it, and became his family documentarian. The young Van Der Zee was also an accomplished musician, who early on aspired to be a professional violinist. At 20, Van Der Zee moved to Harlem where he co-founded a band called Harlem Orchestra. To supplement his income, Van Der Zee began working as a commercial photographer in a local department store. In Harlem, Van Der Zee met his first wife and the young couple moved to Virginia where he made a living playing music and taking photographs for Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). Van Der Zee’s first marriage ended in 1915, and in 1916, he returned to Harlem fixed on opening a studio, which he set up with his new partner and future wife Gaynella Greenlee.
The timing was auspicious. Van Der Zee and Greenlee set up their studio just as large numbers of African Americans were moving to Harlem. Natural disasters in the South put many out of work. While labor shortages as a result of WWI led to demand for workers in the North. From 1910 to 1920, 300,000 African Americans from the South moved North, many of them to Harlem. For the next 20 years, Van Der Zee had a steady stream of clients, mostly middle-class African Americans, and created a body of work documenting the period better than any other photographer.
Van Der Zee’s photographs featured portraits celebrating marriages, communions and military enlistments along with coverage of events - funerals, parades, and civic group gatherings. One of his notable commissions was by Marcus Garvey who tasked Van Der Zee with documenting his Black nationalism efforts through the Universal Negro Improvement Association.
Assembly, Det. Coachman's Building, 1924
Marcus Garvey with George O. Marke and Prince Kojo Tovalou-Houenou, 1924
Van Der Zee’s photographs often romanticized his subjects. To accomplish this, he first composed each image in his head, then set the scene using carefully staged props and lighting, and finally brought everything together through proprietary editing techniques in post-production. For example, he often retouched the subject’s features, added color accents, or created bespoke backgrounds by combining negative images. According to Jeff Rosenheim, curator of the photography department at the Metropolitan Museum, “[Van Der Zee] had an extraordinary knowledge of lighting and printing and manipulation and coloring.” The results were joyous, hopeful, idealistic images that reflected and reinforced the spirit of the time. Van Der Zee’s editing practices were dismissed by the photography establishment at the time who didn’t consider edited photographs to be fine art.
Demand for Van Der Zee’s services began to decline in the mid-1930s due to the economic effects of the Great Depression and the widespread use of personal cameras. During the 1940s, 50s, and 60s Van Der Zee supplemented his studio work with photo restoration work and misc. photography jobs. Van Der Zee’s work was not known to the broader art world until he was discovered by researchers in 1967 preparing for a major retrospective exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum called Harlem on My Mind. The exhibition, which opened in 1969, would trace Harlem’s emergence as the cultural capital of the African American community from 1900 to 1968, principally through documentary photographs and text excerpts. Notable exclusions from this major exhibit were works from African American painters and sculptors active during the time, like Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden and Faith Ringgold. Van Der Zee’s vast body of work and careful documentation led to him being a star of the show. The Met exhibition was followed by a string of follow-on exhibitions of Van Der Zee’s work around the country which sparked the final phase of his long career. In his final years, well into his 90s, Van Der Zee became a notable celebrity photographer, shooting portraits of Cicely Tyson and the young Jean-Michel Basquiat among others. Van Der Zee died in 1983 at age 96.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1982
In 2021, the Met Museum and the Studio Museum of Harlem announced that they would share ownership of James Van Der Zee’s archives. The Studio Museum has ownership of 6,000 prints and 7,000 negatives, and the Met Museum acquired rights to 14,000 prints and 23,000 negatives from James Van Der Zee’s estate. The two museums are in talks to host a joint exhibition as early as 2024 when the Studio Museum moves into its new space. Of Van Der Zee’s legacy, Thelma Golden, Studio Museum Director said, “He is a central figure, a significant artist, in telling the story of people of African descent. The photographs are testaments to beauty and power, and he captured the Harlem community and the African American community in all its possibilities.”