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Van Der Zee, James

in full James Augustus Joseph Van Der Zee

(born June 29, 1886, Lenox, Massachusetts, U.S.—died May 15, 1983, Washington, D.C.) American photographer whose portraits chronicled the Harlem Renaissance.

Van Der Zee made his first photographs as a boy in Lenox, Massachusetts. 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 Van Der Zee moved to Newark, New Jersey, 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.

A Couple Wearing Raccoon Coats with a Cadillac, Taken on West 127th Street, photograph by …
Couple in Raccoon Coats, 1932, Photographer James VanDerZee, © Donna Mussenden VanDerZee

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. Van Der Zee 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 '30s in their poses and expressions, and Van Der Zee 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 forward by Toni Morrison.

After World War II, Van Der Zee's fortunes declined with those of the rest of Harlem. He made ends meet with occasional commissions and with a side business in photo restoration. By the time his collection of negatives and prints was discovered by a representative of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1967, the Van Der Zees were nearly destitute. In early 1969 his photos were featured as part of the museum's successful “Harlem on My Mind” exhibition, which showcased life during the Harlem Renaissance in a variety of media.

Van Der Zee won increasing attention throughout the 1970s, and, from late in that decade until his death in 1983, he photographed many celebrities and promoted his work in shows around the country. In 1993 a retrospective of his work was held at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

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