James VanDerZee, [Group in car], ca. 1920s (753.1990)
James VanDerZee, The Actor, 1922 (853.2000)
James VanDerZee, [Unidentified Man], ca. 1923 (650.1990)
James VanDerZee, Escape Artist, 1924 (883.1990)
James VanDerZee, A Pioneering Negro-Owned Grocery, 1927 (859.2000)
James VanDerZee, [Unidentified Boy], 1927 (867.2000)
James Augustus Joseph VanDerZee was born to a middle-class family (his parents were the maid and butler for Ulyssses S. Grant) in Lenox, Massachusetts, in 1896. A trained violinist and pianist, he was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. His photographs documented twentieth-century Harlem, the largest black community in the United States at that time. For six decades VanDerZee photographed the ordinary man as well as the most celebrated and famous: Marcus Garvey, Bojangles Robinson, Countee Collen, Bill Cosby, Basquiat. But it was the ordinary man whom he photographed the most. Through his lens he captured the citizens of Harlem in lodges and clubs, weddings and funerals. He made studio portraits of actors, political figures, artists, soldiers, church groups, or people who simply wanted a photograph of themselves in elegant attire.
He owned a studio in Harlem from 1916 to 1983. Often his focus was the black middle class and his photographs showed the upward mobility and status of a people in transition. Everyone flocked to VanDerZee’s studio. VanDerZee’s realistic representation of the Harlem community countered the often stereotypical and offensive caricature views of African Americans. His photographs earnestly visualize the pride and beauty of the African American community. His dreamlike, romantic tableaux grab hold of the imagination. His prolific documentation of this time and place is unmatched: 100,000 photographic prints, negatives, and glass plates that archive black life in America.
VanDerZee’s strength lies in the classicism of his studio portraiture. He made images with extreme precision and technique as well as with compositions that were sensitive to light and texture. He often styled and posed his clients with props and costumes. His sets included architectural elements and elaborate backdrops reminiscent of a Hollywood stage. He was a master re-toucher and often created a sense of glamor with the use of handtinting and other darkroom techniques. The tones and textures in his portraits paid homage to Old Masters paintings. All of this allowed him to push his craft and become a successful and sought after photographer.
Sixty years after he disappeared into obscurity, the artworld came calling for photographs for the exhibition Harlem on My Mind at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969. Photographer Reginald McGhee, the exhibition’s director of photographic research, had rediscovered VanDerZee’s archive in the late 1960s. After VanDerZee’s death in 1983, a major retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, in 1993 recognized him as the premier chronicler of Harlem life.
–Nona Faustine Simmons ICP-Bard 2013