June 29, 1886- James Van Der Zee:
“Being an artist, I had an artist’s instincts. You can see the picture before it’s taken; then it’s up to you to get the camera to see.”
For several years, Van Der Zee played piano with Fletcher Henderson‘s band and the John Wanamaker Orchestra while also teaching piano and violin.
He was hired as a darkroom assistant in a New Jersey department store, and by 1916, he had opened his own studio in Harlem, “Guarantee Photo”.
The Harlem Renaissance was in full swing during the 1920s and 1930s, and for decades, Van Der Zee would photograph the people of Harlem, all backgrounds and occupations, though his work is particularly noted for its pioneering depiction of middle-class African-American life. He took thousands of pictures, mostly indoor portraits, and labeled each of his photos with a signature and date.
Van Der Zee photographed many African-American celebrities, including Florence Mills, Hazel Scott and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., yet most of his work was straightforward commercial work: weddings and funerals, including pictures of the dead for grieving families, family groups, teams, lodges, clubs, and people simply wanting to have a record of themselves in fine clothes. He often supplied props or costumes and took time to carefully pose his subjects, giving the picture an accessible narrative.
Van Der Zee’s photos sometimes contained special effects, the result of darkroom manipulation. In one image, a 1920 photograph titled Future Expectations, a young couple is presented in wedding finery, with a ghostly, transparent image of a child at their feet.
With the advent of personal cameras in the middle of the 20th century, the desire for Van Der Zee’s services dwindled; he received less and less commissions, though he maintained an alternative business in image restoration. He became very poor, but in 1969, the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted an exhibition featuring some of Van Der Zee’s work, Harlem On My Mind, bringing the photographer and his photographs renewed attention.
Nonetheless, Van Der Zee continued to face financial difficulties; he was evicted from his Harlem residence, and moved to the Bronx. In 1976, Van Der Zee was living in squalor and poor health. Art gallery director Donna Mussenden took up his cause, starting to structure his home space and organize his public appearances. The two married in 1978. Revitalized, Van Der Zee worked as an in-demand photographer again; shooting celebs such as Lou Rawls, Cicely Tyson and Jean-Michael Basquiat.
In 1981, Van Der Zee filed a suit to reclaim more than 50,000 images from the Studio Museum of Harlem, the rights to which he had signed away after his eviction. The case was finally settled posthumously, with half of the work being returned to his estate, and the remainder being retained by the museum.
He shot the most famous black celebrities of the 20th century, but it was the ordinary man whom he photographed the most. Through his lens he captured the citizens of Harlem in lodges and clubs, actors, political figures, artists, soldiers, church groups, or people who simply wanted a photograph of themselves in elegant attire.
Van Der Zee received several accolades upon his return to the spotlight; among his honors, he became a permanent fellow of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and received a Living Legacy Award from President James Earl Carter. He received an honorary doctorate from historically black Howard University. Van Der Zee died in 1983, taken by a heart attack at 96 years old. Once penniless, his work now sells for tens of thousands of dollars.
“The biggest day for studio photos was Sunday, especially Easter Sunday. The high class, the middle class, the poorer class, all looked good on Sundays.“