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James Van Der Zee was a renowned, Harlem-based photographer known for his posed, storied pictures capturing African-American citizenry and celebrity.
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Born on June 29, 1886, in Lenox, Massachusetts, James Van Der Zee developed a passion for photography as a youth, and opened up his own Harlem studio in 1916. Van Der Zee became known for his detailed imagery of African-American life, and for capturing celebrities such as Florence Mills and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Following hard financial times,
"The biggest day for studio photos was Sunday, especially Easter Sunday. The high class, the middle class, the poorer class all looked good on Sundays."
"Sometimes the photographs seemed to be more valuable to me than they did to the people I was photographing because I put my heart and soul into them."
Van Der Zee enjoyed a resurge in his career during his later years. He died in 1983 in Washington, D.C.
James Augustus Van Der Zee entered the world on June 29, 1886, in Lenox, Massachusetts, the second of six siblings born to Elizabeth and John Van Der Zee. The Van Der Zee children were great students in general, and James learned how to play the piano and violin as a youth. He later developed a passion for photography and took pictures for his high school.
With his brother Walter, James Van Der Zee departed for Harlem, New York, in 1906; once there, he held jobs as a waiter and elevator operator. He married Kate Brown in 1907 and the newlyweds moved to Virginia, where Van Der Zee would do photography work for the Hampton Institute. After welcoming their first child, the couple moved back to New York in 1908 (they would eventually split in 1915).
For several years, Van Der Zee put his musicianship to use, playing with Fletcher Henderson's band and the John Wanamaker Orchestra while also working as a piano and violin teacher.
Van Der Zee obtained a job as a darkroom assistant in a New Jersey department store, and by 1916, he had opened his own Harlem studio, Guarantee Photo. He eventually renamed his workplace GGG Studio, after his second wife, Gaynella Greenlee (they wed in 1920).
The Harlem Renaissance was in full swing during the 1920s and '30s, and for decades, Van Der Zee would photograph Harlemites of all backgrounds and occupations, though his work is particularly noted for its pioneering depiction of middle-class African-American life. He took thousands of pictures, mostly indoor portraits, and labeled each of his photos with a signature and date, which would prove to be important for future documentation.
Although Van Der Zee photographed many African-American celebrities—including Florence Mills, Hazel Scott and Adam Clayton Powell Jr.—most of his work was of the straightforward commercial studio variety: weddings and funerals (including pictures of the dead for grieving families), family groups, teams, lodges, clubs, and people simply wanting to have a record of themselves in fine clothes. He often supplied props or costumes and took time to carefully pose his subjects, giving the picture an accessible narrative.
Van Der Zee's photos sometimes contained special effects from the result of darkroom manipulation. In one image, a 1920 photograph titled "Future Expectations (Wedding Day)," a young couple is presented in bride and groom finery, with a ghostly, transparent image of a child at their feet.
With the advent of personal cameras in the middle of the century, the desire for Van Der Zee's services dwindled; he procured less and less commissions, though he maintained an alternative business in image restoration and mail order sales.
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