James Van Der Zee
Photograph by Harry Hamburg, 1982
At age 29, James Van Der Zee (June 29, 1886 - May 15, 1983) worked as a dark room technician at Gertz Department Store in Newark, New Jersey. He would substitute as a photographer when his employer was unavailable. Patrons enjoyed his creative manner of shooting subjects. This encouraged him to open his own studio, Guarantee Photography, within two years, and he was immediately successful.
In 1932, he outgrew his first studio and went on to open the larger GGG Studio, with his second wife as his assistant (since closed, but the building with its original sign can still be seen on the east side of Lenox Avenue between 123rd and 124th Streets in Harlem). In these studios, many visual techniques were employed using props, architectural elements and costumes in the tradition of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. So much time was taken in posing his subjects that he often only could do three sittings a day.
During the Great Depression, and as the availability of personal cameras severely lessened the need of professional photography, the gap was filled by shooting passport photographs and miscellaneous photographic jobs to make a living. After World War II, he survived via commissions and in the field of photo restoration.
Woman in a Wicker Chair
Van Der Zee loved Harlem and admired the lives of blacks in Harlem who lived prosperous and fulfilling lives. His now iconic photographs depicted black life in Harlem. His studio soon became the place to which black celebrities of the day flocked. Among the leading celebrities who were photographed by Van Der Zee included, dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, singer Hazel Scott, boxers Joe Louis and Jack Johnson, and prominent Harlem minister Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. Van Der Zee was also famous for his photographs of women, who typically shown wearing the latest fashions or as brides or as matriarchs of their families. In fact, Van Der Zee took many photographs of black families, as it was important to him to chronicle the love and continuity of the emerging middle class black family life.(auca150art.com)
Kids at swimming pool
Raised in one of 5 black families in Lennox, Massachusetts, by parents who had been servants for retired President Ulysses S. Grant, Van Der Zee became an avid amateur photographer at age 14. In 1906 he moved to Harlem, where he taught piano and violin and co-founded an orchestra. Within a few years, Van Der Zee found that a better living could be made in photography than music (blog.clevelandart.org)
Marcus Garvey in Regalia sitting in an automobile, 1924
Garvey's Women's Brigade, 1924
Alpha Phialpha Basketball Team, 1926
James Van Der Zee photographs Eubie Blake
Art gallery on Madison Avenue, NY, 1981
James Van Der Zee did not gain recognition from the art world until age 82 when, in 1969, his photographs were included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition Harlem On My Mind. By that point, Van Der Zee had been documenting African American life for over 60 years. His lack of prior recognition was due both to his race and his choice of artistic medium.
National recognition was given to him when his collection of 75,000 photographs spanning a period of six decades of African-American life was discovered by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His photos were featured in 1969 as part of the Harlem on my Mind exhibition. From the 1970s until his death in 1983, Van Der Zee photographed the many celebrities who had come across his work and promoted him throughout the country. He was known to have brought the spirit of Harlem to life.