When James Van Der Zee took his first photograph in 1900, Eastman Kodak had just released the Brownie—a box camera that introduced the concept of a snapshot. When he took his last in 1983, disposable cameras were still in development.
While the names of other American photographers may be well known—Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, and Annie Leibovitz come to mind as among the most prominent—the 80 year career of James Van Der Zee, who worked mainly in Harlem, stands out for having overlapped with “nearly half of the medium’s history, from photography’s invention in 1839 to the present moment,” writes Emilie Boone, an assistant professor in NYU’s Department of Art History, in her newly released A Nimble Arc: James Van Der Zee and Photography (Duke University Press).
A studio portrait photographer, Van Der Zee not only needed to be nimble “in responding to his clients’ needs,” Boone writes, but also adaptable to the many technological changes within the field.
“His nimbleness evokes the slow experience of gaining his skill in photography,” explains Boone, who is also an affiliated faculty member at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. “He was around when electric light was not used in photography, and he saw the changes that were caused by photographers using a flash. He had to figure out how to navigate all these changes. But as he’s navigating the changes, he’s also building a skill set, and you see this culminating in his later years.”
Born in Lenox, Mass., in 1886, Van Der Zee moved to New York City in 1906 to work with his father and brother as a waiter and elevator operator before eventually settling in Harlem in 1916 and setting up his own photo studio.
“I really can't think of a peer that has had that type of long-term engagement with one place,” Boone says. “And so even though the people of Harlem are changing over the decades, Van Der Zee is still there. And even his four studios—he would open one and close it and then open another one—were all within a few blocks. He never moves far—he is the epitome of a neighborhood studio photographer.”
NYU News spoke with Boone about Van Der Zee’s significance in documenting 20th-century New York, as well as the larger, and perhaps underappreciated, artistic impact of his work.
You write about how Van Der Zee’s photographs illuminate the richness of Black daily life—“the ordinary as part of the extraordinary,” as you describe it. How did he do that in his studio?
To begin to talk about Van Der Zee, we can start with the type of business he had. It was a commercial photography studio. As opposed to other photographers of the era, who were going out with their cameras and creating photographs in the name of art for their own purposes, Van Der Zee was doing something that bridged an artistic project with a practical service. He had ordinary individuals coming into his studio. It was a storefront studio so many of his customers were those who were living in the neighborhood and just kind of passing by. But some of them were return visitors and some of them were people who had traveled to Harlem, either from other parts of Manhattan or from all over the world.
So they step into this amazing parlor room, and they’re able to see all these examples of Van Der Zee’s photographs—and then they pose for the photographer. There’s something about that exchange—the ability for everyday people to walk into the studio and leave with this absolutely amazing image.
We can also think about issues of Black representation at that time—the 1920s and 1930s—and the genre of portraiture. It’s really a genre traditionally for those of means and of importance —such as the paintings of kings and queens or famous dignitaries. For Van Der Zee to be able to take portraits of not only everyday people, but of a predominantly African-American population, and to do so day in and day out, is particularly extraordinary, especially given the time period that he was doing it—a time period in which the visual culture of the United States and beyond most commonly depicted Black individuals in derogatory ways.
Obviously there were exceptions, but within the United States in particular, you had widespread circulation of derogatory images in the forms of minstrelsy and Currier and Ives, all telling one kind of story about Black individuals. But Van Der Zee is really telling, visually, an extraordinary story and a really distinct one that is influenced by his innovations.
Speaking of these innovations, Ansel Adams once said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” What were some of the techniques Van Der Zee used to “make” his photographs?
There was a high level of artistry involved. He really took his time—as opposed to peers who just had people coming into their studios, getting their photograph taken, and leaving, and then having more subjects come in. By contrast, Van Der Zee limited his visits to four or five per day. It’s important to think through what this means for his practice—what the extra time affords him when it comes to thinking through the final product with these photographs.
Some of the things he did were on the surface of the photograph. He was in the habit of hand coloring on the very surface of the photograph. He also did a lot of superimposing on the images. For example, he would add the text from a poem directly on an image. And then other times he would add little illustrations to the image. So, if he's taking a photograph of someone who was in the service, he would add an illustration of a flag in the upper left-hand corner.
He also did things that we probably don’t recognize—like corrective work. He would take out lines around eyes and lines around the mouth in order to improve the appearance of his subjects, particularly women. He would also add at times these fun details. He would, for example, paint rings around fingers on the negative.
I feel like his personality is really coming out in those additions and also his very high level of detail and skill—really seeing the photograph not only as a photographic reproduction but also as an image that can be augmented and manipulated.
So Van Der Zee’s photographs function not only as images, but also as objects. I think one great example of this is one mirror that appears in one of his photographs. Van Der Zee took a photograph and was able to secure it on top of an oval handheld mirror (see Flapper in Beaded Headdress, right).
Van Der Zee has been touted as “one of the most renowned photographers of the Harlem Renaissance.” Yet, you write that he “had no direct contact with any of the artistic movements of Harlem during his more than fifty years of operating a studio.” How, then, did he contribute to that cultural moment?
Just thinking about how we talk about the Harlem Renaissance and how it is defined, it has mostly been dominated by relationships that revolve around Alain Locke, a pre-eminent philosopher and writer. He was penning what we could call directives and guidelines for what Black artists should be doing during this Harlem Renaissance moment. And he also was a huge supporter of a lot of different artists. But of all the artists who are affiliated with Alain Locke, Van Der Zee is not among them. Van Der Zee is also not affiliated with the Harmon Foundation, which is another institution from the Harlem Renaissance and which was a patron and a supporter of Black artists.
But with Van Der Zee, interestingly, other than a few instances of him taking photographs of some of the big names, we don’t have records of him being linked in the more traditional way of how we think about the Harlem Renaissance, which was this very connected and dynamic group. Instead, he’s tied to this period through ordinary people—I feel like that was his largest connection to the Harlem Renaissance. The fact is that he is representing these sometimes anonymous subjects that are living the Harlem Renaissance. They might not be friends with Alain Locke, but they are there and they are part of the heart and soul of the Harlem Renaissance.
In terms of the visual aspect of the period, there is a huge range of stylistic variations that constitute the Harlem Renaissance—from Black artists who are taking up the modernist style of art to those who are sticking with more formalized representations, such as painted portraiture. This range of styles and forms are underneath the larger umbrella of the Harlem Renaissance because they are depicting this rebirth of Black life and a transition away from a mentality of Blackness that is based upon the years of slavery and moving towards a newness and a rebirth. So within that larger context, Van Der Zee is providing an opportunity for Black individuals to be seen in this fabulous light. This is, as Alain Locke would say, “the new Negro.” They have their amazing hats. They have their pearls. They have their amazing dresses.
Van Der Zee is depicting the modern Black woman and the modern Black man. And so in his representation of his subjects, he definitely aligns with what the Harlem Renaissance was all about. So even if he’s not directly connected to the big names, if we consider the broader strokes of what this movement means, he is at the center—if not one of the defining characters in it.
You write that photography parallels the African diaspora—“inherently mobile and unfixed”—and describe Van Der Zee’s photographs as “analogous to diasporic identities” because of their malleability and distinctiveness. Was he cognizant of this parallel in his own work or was it coincidental—or perhaps even unconscious?
Van Der Zee would not use the term “African diaspora,” or even the term that I use over and over again in the book—“vernacular”—which speaks to the significance photography has in daily life. These would be completely foreign to him. But I think Van Der Zee would be intimately aware of the transformation that takes place over a lifetime when you are engaging in a medium like photography—a medium that over the course of your career changed so much. The people who came into his studio have changed so much and the way people have talked about photography through his lifetime have also changed so much. And so it’s almost like this was his life journey—and it’s one that parallels how we talk about the African diaspora today.