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.

Image Credits:,, and
Source: and


Dance_Soul said...

I love the History lessons you give. From now on, I'll pay more attention to photos from that era and look for his name.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Dancewithme2. I also love the history. So much I NEVER would have learned if I had not started reading your blog... Thank you Stephen! Have a great weekend!

Geoffrey Philp said...

Vander Zee was one of my favorite photographers and yet I didn't know he was the one who took that picture of Basquiat.
Thanks, Stephen

Stephen A. Bess said...

Thank you. I find out about Vander Zee in college. My father had a book in the house on him. I've been fascinated ever since. I decided to post something today since it is his bday.

Hello my Minnesota sista! Thank you. I will continue to put out that info for you to enjoy. Thanks and have a wonderful weekend.

Thank you sir. I love his work. He was just doing what he enjoyed and someone was able to appreciate it later in life. That's a beautiful thing. I thought that he was known all over, but he was simply the "picture guy" in Harlem until the late 6o's. Peace~

BronzeBuckaroo said...

I love those photographs by Van Der Zee, especially those of Harlem's basketball players. Spike Lee is owner of my favorite basketball photo, the Renaissance Players I think. Do you have VAN DERZEE PHOTOGRAPHS, a collection containing some of is portraits? I have the book and keep in on my bed table.

Tafari said...

Thanks for this history nugget! I was not familiar with Zee so good thing I checked in before I hit the sack.


Rethabile said...

Gee, thanks for a wonderful post. Tell us, tell us, tell us. We need it.

changeseeker said...

Besides my fascination with words, I have a grand affection for photographs and own a number of collections that I wallow through from time to time. While I've come across Vander Zee's work many times, I'm sure, I see I MUST get a collection. I can hardly wait. The Basquiat photo alone would be worth the price. Sometime in the future, I'm going to do a post just so I can use that photo. Thanks!

Toastedsuzy said...

Thanks, Stephen!

Stephen A. Bess said...

I do not have a collection of his work. I would love to have it though. His work is great. I knew that you would like this post. :)

You're welcome sir. Thanks for stopping through.

Thanks. It's wonderful because I always learn something in the process.

Yes, I love that photo of Basquiat. It's my favorite. I'll be checking to see when you come up with that post. Peace~

Wow! Long time, Long time!!! It's good to see you. Thanks for stopping in.

Southern Me~ said...

I love the story. Great photo's and thanks Stephen for sharing a part of history with me/us!

neena maiya (guyana gyal) said...

Long live the picture guy in Harlem...he might be gone in body but not in spirit. I love it when people stay true to their art.

It's true, I learn a whole lot about African-American culture on your blog, so much good has happened, is happening, the media ought to know. Good inspires good.

Stephen A. Bess said...

Thank you for taking the time to read it. I learn so much when putting it together.

I'm constantly looking for ways to improve myself. Fellowship and prayer helps. I also observe others who seem to be doing something right. I'm glad that you can take something valuable away from visiting here. I love to write about African American history here in America. It's fascinating and somewhat hidden. So, I drag the information out of the piles, dust it off and voilà...we have Morphological Confetti. :)

NML/Natalie said...

I also love your history lessons. I recognise his work but knew nothing about him before this post. Thank you! Thanks for all of your lovely comments re the bambino. Peace x

Klara said...

I think your blog is one the most Informative blogs I ever read! Thanx for keeping me on the know..:p

Anonymous said...

How did I miss Van Der Zee in my photography classes? As usual, I learn something from you. I can't wait to explore of his photographs. I adore the image of Basquiat.

Thanks and have a happy 4th!

Stephen A. Bess said...

Thank you dear. The baby is so precious. Give her a big kiss for me. Peace~

Thank you. I really appreciate that. I'll continue to search and post. :)

That's why I love these interactions. We learn so much from each other. Thank you. Yes, Basquiat is my favorite too. I love the film too.

black feline said...

it's like walking down memory an outsider i dont feel left out at all..the theme is the black and white shots....

Anonymous said...

it was really good.

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