Black History Month is here and I want to use my platform to showcase important photographers that are often overlooked in discussions of the craft. Photographers are already not the topic of many conversations by those not in the field and few seem to have name recognition, to begin with, but black photographers seem to be completely missed in conversations entirely.
Though I can’t hope to rectify the issue all by myself, I will be doing quick highlights of some amazing photographers who are worth knowing and provided us an inside and in-depth look at various aspects of the black experience.
James Van Der Zee (1886–1983)
James Van Der Zee was a prominent photographer during the Harlem Renaissance who captured various aspects of black life, highlighting families, black leaders, and celebrities. His images were filled with so many amazing details, showcasing a people and a time that seems to have been, in many ways, forgotten.
Spanning decades, his career would find him photographing the likes of Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association, “Black” Jack Johnson, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Mamie Smith, and Florence Mills, along with many others, some unnamed or unknown.
Towards the twilight of his career, he even photographed the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, creating some of my personal favorite portraits of the artist.
Researching James was very interesting. Most biographies I found simply talked about his life documenting Harlem, his financial problems, rise to prominence, and legal battle with the Studio Museum in Harlem. The most interesting biography went a little deeper than that.
On the Scholastic website, I found an article on James Van Der Zee designed to help teachers talk about him and his documentation of Harlem. Something that this biography highlighted, that many others had missed, was that James’ parents had been servants to President Ulysses S. Grant, giving them elevated status and allowing them to be one of just a few black families to be able to settle in Lenox, Massachusetts at the time.
Combing through the beginning section of the piece, as well as sampling other biographies, we learn that James’ education, full of art and music, granted him opportunities and fueled the passion which would take him to Harlem eventually.
James played piano and violin, painted and drew. One account I found reveals that James won his first camera “selling ladies’ sachets,” left school at 14 when he started working at a hotel and became enamored with photography guests and the people of Lenox. Apparently, at 20 he left for Harlem to start a band and to make ends meet he took a job as a department store darkroom technician.
Eventually, he would build enough of a reputation for himself to start his own studio.
This is where the gap gets filled in with the bulk of the images he captured over the course of his life.
Reading the Scholastic piece, something that was more interesting to me than who and what he shot, was how he chose to shoot and retouch his images. James was keen on making sure that the Harlem he photographed was the dream Harlem he had in his mind.
He used his talents in the darkroom to “fix” elements of images, making his subjects look better than they did when they were standing in front of his lens. This desire to represent the best possible version of his city and his black subjects is commendable, though I’m sure it has drawn the ire of photojournalists and documentarians.
“I tried to see that every picture was better-looking than the person. I had one woman come to me and say, ‘Mr. Van Der Zee, my friends tell that’s a nice picture, but it doesn’t look like you.’ That was my style.”
I wish I could say that his vision of Harlem and his hard work meant continued success, but his story isn’t quite that simple. Over time, there was less need for photo studios and his business started to drag, causing him to do photographic odd jobs to keep the strobes flashing. If you have the chance, you should definitely read, or listen to, more about James and his story.
The “discovery” of his work in the late 1960s, his legal battle over his prints with the Studio Museum, and other elements all help to paint a fuller picture of this man and highlight the strange tragedy of the under-appreciation for his work during the bulk of his lifetime.
High-quality images of James Van Der Zee’s work are a bit hard to come by on the internet but you can see some additional work from him here. Honestly, viewing his work online doesn’t quite do it justice, his images are phenomenal and really capture his subjects in this way that transports you to the time and place he captured, a sensation that is somewhat lost when viewing them on a screen. In person, you can see some of James’ work at the Studio Museum in Harlem or pick up a copy of VanDerZee: Photographer 1886-1983 on Amazon.