Black History 365: James Van Der Zee

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James Van Der Zee (1886-1983) was born in Lenox, Massachusetts and demonstrated an early gift for music, initially aspiring to a career as a professional violinist.  His other interest was photography. At the age of fourteen he received his first camera and took hundreds of photographs of his family and the town of Lenox.  As one of the first people in the town to own a camera he was able to provide a rich early documentation of community life in small town New England.  Van Der Zee moved to New York City in 1906 to work with his father and brother as waiters and elevator operators. By now a skilled pianist and aspiring professional violinist, he was also the primary creator and one of the five performers in a group known as the Harlem Orchestra. In 1915 Van Der Zee moved to Newark, New Jersey where he was employed as a darkroom assistant and later as a photographer in a portrait studio.  He returned to New York in 1916 and moved to Harlem just as large numbers of black migrants and immigrants were arriving in that section of the city.  He set up his first portrait studio in his sister’s music conservatory and two years later, with his second wife, Gaynella Greenlee, established the Guarantee Photo Studio in Harlem.  Quickly Van Der Zee became the most successful photographer in Harlem. Early 20th century black activist Marcus Garvey, black entertainer/ dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and renowned black poet Countee Cullen were among his more prominent subjects.

 By the early 1930s Van Der Zee’s income from his photography work declined partly because of the strained economic circumstances of many of his customers and partly because the growing popularity of personal cameras reduced the need for professional photography. Van Der Zee responded by shooting passport photos, doing photo restorations, and taking other miscellaneous photography jobs, an approach he would employ for over two decades.   In 1967 James Van Der Zee’s work was rediscovered by photographers and photo-historians and he then received attention far beyond his Harlem community.  Van Der Zee came out of retirement to photograph celebrities who in turn promoted his work in exhibits around the nation.  His images were also the subject of books and documentaries.   In 1993, the National Portrait Gallery exhibited his work as a posthumous tribute to his remarkable genius.