James van der Zee
James Van Der Zee (1886 – 1983) was an African-American photographer known for his portraits from the Harlem Renaissance period. Van Der Zee used photography not only to celebrate black culture, but also to give his models a sense of pride. He started photography as a teenager when he won a camera with a competition.
In 1916 he opened his own studio in Harlem. In the following decades, he photographs harlem residents, weddings, funerals, schoolchildren, and parades and is house photographer of civil rights activist Marcus Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League,an organization that advocates for union of the black American community and the return to Africa as a home base.
James Van Der Zee takes hundreds of thousands of photos of known and unknown people: Madam C J Walker, Countee Cullen, Bill (“Bojangles”) Robinson, Joe Louis, Florence Mills and Marcus Garvey. In later years they include Bill Cosby, Lou Rawls, Cicely Tyson, Muhammad Ali and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Paul and Thelma Meers were successful entertainers. The handsome couple feels right at home on West 127th Street, a residential street in Harlem, New York. Every detail of the photo exudes brilliance and prosperity: their luxury car, fur coats and serene expressions project together a powerful aura of contentment. Their Cadillac V-16 Roadster, is as expensive as it is exclusive. Only four thousand were made. The glossy paint and shiny chrome of this convertible illustrate the richness of the couple, rarities in the United States during the Great Depression.
Over 65.000 negatives
In half a century, Van der Zee has built up a collection of more than 65,000 negatives in which every aspect of black life in Harlem has been immortalized. In the 60s, when portable cameras became popular, he himself fell into oblivion as a studio photographer. He scrapes money together by making photocopies and calendars. His photo collection gathering dust in his studio.
Together with his photographs, Van Der Zee threatens to go into history invisibly. Until a scout, Reginald McGhee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, walks into his studio in 1968 and discovers the collection of negatives. His photographs become the main addition to the controversial Harlem on my Mind exhibition from 1969, in which for the first time national attention is paid to the art and culture of Harlem.
Suddenly, at his 86th, James Van der Zee is a renowned and sought-after artist. Famous African-Americans such as Bill Cosby, Muhammad Ali and Jean-Michel Basquiat are portrayed by him. His photographs are purchased by museums such as the Metropolitian Museum of Art and the MoMa in New York, The National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. and the Art Institute in Chicago.
James Van Der Zee dies at the age of 96, on May 15, 1983 in Washington, D.C. Today, his photographs are part of renowned museums such as The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Detroit Institute of Arts.
James Van Der Zee not only took his photos in the studio, customers also asked the photographer to come to their homes, churches or schools to record weddings, baptisms, sports competitions and the like.