Friday, June 29, 2007

James VanDerZee

African American photographer, James Augustus Joseph Van Der Zee was born June 29, 1886 in Lenox, Massachusetts. It’s difficult for me to think of the history of black America without thinking of the photography of Mr. Van Der Zee. You certainly cannot think of Harlem, NY without thinking of him because that’s where he captured some of his most memorable photographs. His main interest was the people of the famed 125th Street. That is where he opened his studio in 1916 called the Guarantee Photo Studio. He would capture the faces and lifestyles of the Harlem Renaissance as well as the everyday people who populated the brownstones and tenements that Harlem is famous for. Van Der Zee also served as the official photographer to Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Associate (UNIA).
James Van Der Zee would chronicle the styles and people of Harlem for over 40 years. However, business eventually slowed down as the years past. People began to buy their own cameras and less opted to go to studios. Fortunately, Van Der Zee’s negatives and prints were discovered by a representative of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1967 and Van Der Zee’s career was revived. This time his photos would reach an audience outside of Harlem. The successful exhibit, Harlem on My Mind, showcased his wonderful talent in 1969 and the world began to know about James Van Der Zee.

James Van Der Zee would go on to take pictures throughout the 70’s of famous celebrities like comedian and entertainer Bill Cosby as well as the late Hatian American artist, Jean Michel Basquiat (pictured left). Those were some of his last photographs. James Vander Zee died in 1983 in Washington, D.C. James Van Der Zee captured the many faces of Harlem and the spirit of Africans in America. He was 96.

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