About the Photographer
Van der Zee, James
Born in Lennox, Massachusetts, James Van Der Zee settled in New York City in 1916 and established the Guarantee Photo Studio in Harlem shortly afterward. The studio brought him immediate commercial success as a portrait photographer, and over the next two decades he photographed numerous members of the Harlem community. Van Der Zee portrayed his subjects as they chose to be represented and remembered through photography. He approached portraiture more as an art form than a straightforward visual record; often introducing theatrical aspects and having his subjects pose with elaborate props and backgrounds reminiscent of 19th century photographs.
Accoutrements such as floor-length fur coats, bejeweled earrings, and uniform hats worn by his subjects reflect everything from fashion trends to religious and political affiliations. As the official photographer for the political activist and orator Marcus Garvey, Van Der Zee captured numerous Universal Negro Improvement Association members posing in their military-like garb. He often retouched his portraits or used double exposures, adding elements like cigarette smoke or the dreamt and imagined forms of deceased family members. These canny alterations became a hallmark of his work and a major reason for the success of his photography studio.
Falling on hard times in the late 1930s as the state of the economy and the popularity of mass-market cameras cut into his business, he came to depend upon his retouching and restoration skills as a way to make ends meet. In 1967, the photographer and researcher Reginald McGhee came across Van Der Zee and his private collection of thousands of photographs. The little known archive quickly brought recognition from museums and cultural institutions, heralding the highly accomplished career of a forgotten––or, more likely, overlooked--African American photographer. In 1969, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York featured selections of his work centrally in the photography and multi-media exhibition Harlem on My Mind.
The Harlem on my Mind exhibition, considered to be the first major show devoted to the accomplishments of a minority group at an American art museum, sparked a number of major civic debates and received negative reviews. Local African American artists picketed outside the Metropolitan in opposition to the exhibition’s lack of African American art of the more refined and “artistic” forms such as painting and sculpture. This dislike was compounded with general misgivings from Harlem-based groups who felt excluded from the planning of an exhibit meant to represent the place and history they knew best. In addition, anti-Semitic language found in the exhibition’s catalogue essay by a 17 year-old Harlem student led to a highly publicized public relations nightmare for one of the world’s most well-regarded museums of art. Despite the controversy surrounding the exhibition, Van Der Zee received an unprecedented amount of attention and acclaim, which led to the presentation of his work in subsequent museum shows and at other cultural venues.
The public "discovery" of his work in the late 1960s corresponded with a renewed interest in the early twentieth century cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Through his studio portraits and photographs of civic groups, black entertainers and artists, and social activities such as weddings and funerals, Van Der Zee captured a nuanced cross-section of this milieu, illustrating Harlem's cultural vitality and growing prosperity in the 1920s and 1930s. Decades later, he photographed famous figures such as Bill Cosby, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Muhammad Ali in a style reminiscent of his early portraits. Van Der Zee’s photographs, produced during a career spanning multiple decades, have remained central to visual narratives about Harlem as well as the glamour style and sense of progress that define the historical Harlem Renaissance era.