Photographer Spotlight: James Van Der Zee

James Van Der Zee


James Van Der Zee (June 29, 1886 – May 15, 1983) was an African-American photographer best known for his portraits of black New Yorkers. James Van Der Zee is celebrated for his pioneering, glamorous portraits of the emergent African-American middle-class during the ’20s and ’30s. He also captured the thriving celebrity, arts, and music culture of the time. Through the use of ghostly double exposures, the artist portrayed deceased family members or imaginary figures (suggesting the future children of a happily married couple, for example) in his photos. The influence of his unique retouching techniques and sensitive, poetic approach has been frequently understated.

Van Der Zee made his first photographs as a boy in Lenox, Massachusetts. He bought his first camera when he was a teenager, and improvised a darkroom in his parents’ home. In 1905, he moved with his father and brother to Harlem in New York City, where he worked as a waiter and elevator operator. In 1915, he moved to Newark, New Jersey, where he took 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 studio at a music conservatory that his sister had founded in 1911.

In 1916, he and his second wife, Gaynella Greenlee, launched the Guarantee Photo Studio on West 125th Street in Harlem. His business boomed during World War I, and the portraits he shot from this period until 1945 have demanded the majority of critical attention. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, he produced hundreds of photographs recording Harlem’s growing middle class. Its residents entrusted the visual documentation of their weddings, funerals, celebrities and sports stars, and social life to his carefully composed images. Among his many renowned subjects were poet Countee Cullen, dancer Bill (“Bojangles”) Robinson, Charles M. “Daddy” Grace, Joe Louis, Florence Mills, 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 vivant in keeping with late Victorian and Edwardian visual traditions. Sitters often copied celebrities of the 1920’s and 1930’s in their poses and expressions, and he retouched negatives and prints heavily to achieve an aura of glamour. He also created funeral photographs between the wars. These works were collected in The Harlem Book of the Dead (1978), with a foreword by Toni Morrison.

In 1969, Van Der Zee gained worldwide recognition when his work was featured in the exhibition, “Harlem on my Mind,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. As art historian Sharon Patton observed, Van Der Zee not only documented the Harlem Renaissance, but also helped create it.



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