James Van Der Zee (1886-1983), USA
6 x 7 1/2 in. (15.2 x 19.1 cm)
About the artist
James Van Der Zee began taking photos as a teenager growing up in Massachusetts in the early 1900s. In 1906, he moved to New York with his family and after working in a photo lab, he set up his own portrait studio in his sister’s music conservatory in Harlem.
His arrival in Harlem came at a propitious moment in Harlem’s history and in his own. The Great Migration, which had begun in 1910 and lasted until 1970, would eventually bring approximately six million African Americans from the south to northern cities. Harlem had become a dream destination for large numbers of them because of the proximity to jobs and to family members who had already settled there. Another element in Harlem’s transformation, and in Van Der Zee’s career, was that African Americans from a neighborhood known as Black Bohemia that was essentially a Black ghetto in mid-town Manhattan, also began to move to Harlem. These residents, who were mainly middle-class and educated, had a lively interest in the arts that helped set the tone for a burgeoning cultural life in Harlem.
Van Der Zee photographed many of the prominent figures in Harlem in those days. He was sought out by well-to-do families to do their portraits and his studio provided props and an opulent setting for their photographs. His photos also provide a valuable record of leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance - its activists, artists and theatrical figures.
Van Der Zee’s work includes a rich collection of photos taken on his walks through Harlem as he searched out scenes of daily life, giving us a vivid image of how people lived. At the end of WWI, his photos of a mainly Black regiment known as the Harlem Hellfighters brought him to national attention from far beyond Harlem.
By the early 1930s, when more people had their own cameras, Van Der Zee’s portrait business began to slow down, but he continued to work as a commercial photographer until the late 1960s when he work was “discovered” again. His photos were featured in The Metropolitan Museum’s controversial 1969 exhibition, Harlem on my Mind, and cemented Van Der Zee’s reputation as one of the foremost photographers of the period. He was posthumously inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum. The National Gallery in Washington DC had an exhibition of his work in 2022.
“Everyday Black History - How Harlem became a Black Cultural Mecca.” One Mic Black History, December 31, 2020. https://www.onemichistory.com/blog/how-harlem-became-a-black-cultural-mecca/.
“James Van der Zee.” Art and Artists. MOMA. Accessed May 3, 2023. https://www.moma.org/artists/6074.
“James Van der Zee.” Artist. SAAM. https://americanart.si.edu/artist/james-vanderzee-6593
“James Van Der Zee.” Visual Arts, Photography. Britannica. Accessed May 3, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/James-VanDerZee.
James Van der Zee: Eighteen Photographs September, 11, 2015 through January 3, 2016, Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska.
Khawla Kacem. “Photography During the Harlem Renaissance: James Van Der Zee’s Works as a Keystone in Its Blooming.” Investigatio in Hypotheses, July 15, 2022. https://mastersfdl.hypotheses.org/3440.