James Van Der Zee

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Van Der Zee in 1982

James Van Der Zee (June 29, 1886 - May 15, 1983) was an African-American photographer best known for his portraits of black New Yorkers. He was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Aside from the artistic merits of his work, Van Der Zee produced the most comprehensive documentation of the period. Among his most famous subjects during this time were Marcus Garvey, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Countee Cullen.

Biography[edit]

Van Der Zee made his first photographs as a boy in Lenox, Mass. By 1906 he had 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, N.J., 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 portrait studio at a music conservatory that his sister had founded in 1911.

In 1916 Van Der Zee and his second wife, Gaynella Greenlee, launched the Guarantee Photo Studio 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. Among his many renowned subjects were poet Countee Cullen, dancer Bill (“Bojangles”) Robinson, and black-nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. James 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, and he retouched negatives and prints heavily to achieve an aura of glamour. Van Der Zee 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.

Photographic techniques and artistry[edit]

Works by Van Der Zee are artistic as well as technically proficient. His work was in high demand, in part due to his experimentation and skill in double exposures and in retouching negatives of children. One theme that recurs in his photographs was the emergent black middle class, which he captured using traditional techniques in often idealistic images. Negatives were retouched to show glamor and an aura of perfection. This affected the likeness of the person photographed, but he felt each photo should transcend the subject. His carefully posed family portraits reveal that the family unit was an important aspect of Van Der Zee's life. "I tried to see that every picture was better-looking than the person." "I had one woman come to me and say 'Mr.Van Der Zee my friends tell thats a nice picture, But it doesn't look like you.' That was my style." Said Van Der Zee.[1]

Van Der Zee sometimes combined several photos in one image, for example by adding a ghostly child to an image of a wedding to suggest the couple's future, or by superimposing a funeral image upon a photograph of a dead woman to give the feeling of her eerie presence. Van Der Zee said, "I wanted to make the camera take what I thought should be there." [1]

Van Der Zee was a working photographer who supported himself through portraiture, and he devoted time to his professional work before his more artistic compositions. Many famous residents of Harlem were addition(?) to portraits, Van Der Zee photographed organizations, events, and other businesses.

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