Posted on 01/25/2009

Photo taken on January  1, 1918

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Lenox Massachusetts
James Van Der Zee
African American
Self Portrait
Harlem Renaissance

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James VanDerZee [photo taken by VanDerZee]

James VanDerZee [photo taken by VanDerZee]
[b.1886 - d.1983]

James VanDerZee was the first great African American photographer of the twentieth century. By any measure of achievement, he also deserves to be counted among the masters of the medium. His career spanned a remarkable eighty years, from his first photographs-taken at the turn of the century of family and friends in Lenox, Massachusetts, where he grew up, to his beautiful late portraits, made when he was in his nineties, of Bill Cosby, Eubie Blake, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and others. VanDerZee was best known, however; for the thousands of photographs that he took between the wars in New York's Harlem, where he ran a commercial photographic studio: portraits of celebrities and community leaders, children and families, brides and grooms; haunting memorial portraits of the dead; documentary photographs, including a remarkable series made for Marcus Garvey in 1924; and photographs of nudes and humorous or delightfully whimsical subjects made for calendars and posters.

In VanDerZee's photographs, the Harlem Renaissance comes alive as a time of achievement, idealism, and material success. VanDerZee is the first survey of his work in more than twenty years, and it reproduces the late portraits for the first time. It includes many of his best-known photographs, as well as new discoveries never before published, with careful documentation. Deborah Willis Braithwaite, the author of Black Photographers, 1840-1988, shows how VanDerZee used his artistic powers and photographic vision to shape a collective image of his world. In a biographical essay, Rodger C. Birt, Associate Professor of Humanities at San Francisco State University, tells the moving story of VanDerZee's career, including the discovery of his photographs by the world outside Harlem in 1969 and its impact on his life.

James VanDerZee was born on June 29, 1886, in Lenox, Massachusetts. His parents were both experienced servants-they had worked for a short time in the New York City household of former President Ulysses S. Grant-who were employed by the large resort hotels of the town. Over the course of a happy, New England childhood, VanDerZee conceived a love of art and music, and he began taking photographs in his early teens. In 1905 he moved to New York City, settling in Harlem three years later. He continued to take photographs while he worked at various jobs, including musician and elevator operator, and in 1916, with his wife, Gaynella, he opened his own photographic studio on West 135th Street. The next forty years, he was Harlem's preeminent photographer. People flocked to have their images captured for posterity amid the genteel surroundings of his studio, with its painted backdrops and victorian furniture. He also ventured out into the community, photographing weddings and funerals, groups of all kinds, and special events. In the course of his work he evolved his own personal aesthetic, utilizing retouching and photomontage.

VanDerZee's fortunes as a photographer declined after World War II, and by the late 1960s, when his work was discovered by a large audience thanks to its inclusion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Harlem On My Mind" exhibition, she died in 1976, and James married Donna Mussenden in 1978. His reputation continued to grow, and in 1980-83 he made a series of photographic portraits of famous African Americans. He died with many honors at the age of ninety-six on May 15, 1983.

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