About the Photographer
Van der Zee, James
Born in Lennox, Massachusetts, James Van Der Zee settled in New York City in 1916 and he established the Guarantee Photo Studio in Harlem shortly afterward. It brought him immediate commercial success as a portrait photographer, and over the next two decades Van der Zee photographed numerous members of the emerging black middle class. He approached portraiture more as an art form than a straightforward visual record, introducing theatrical aspects and having his subjects pose with elaborate props and backgrounds that are reminiscent of 19th century carte de visite setups. He often also retouched his portraits or used double exposures, adding elements like cigarette smoke or the spectral forms of deceased family members, and these canny alterations became a hallmark of his work. 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, Van der Zee eventually turned to his retouching and restoration skills as a way to make ends meet.
Fame came to Van Der Zee late in life, more than fifty years after he first opened his studio. In 1967 Van Der Zee was living in poverty when a photographer and researcher named Reginald McGhee discovered a collection of thousands of his photographs. The lost 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, two years after the photographs were uncovered, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York featured selections centrally in the exhibition Harlem on My Mind, and presentations at other venues followed. The public "discovery" of Van Der Zee's work in the late 1960s corresponded with a renewed interest in the 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 gradually captured a nuanced cross-section of this milieu, illustrating Harlem's cultural vitality and growing prosperity in the 1920s and 1930s.