Visual Culture

The Photographer Who Captured the Glamour of the Harlem Renaissance

Alina Cohen
Mar 27, 2019 9:09PM

James Van Der Zee, Eve's Daughter, c. 1920. © Donna Mussenden Van Der Zee. Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

James Van Der Zee, Young Girl with Dog, 1921. © Donna Mussenden Van Der Zee. Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

At the height of the Harlem Renaissance, photographer James Van Der Zee’s uptown studio became a site of fantasy and self-invention. In his 1920 photograph Eve’s Daughter, for example, an African-American woman embodies a joyful, edenic figure, standing in front of a studio backdrop that pictures an idyllic lake and trees. She wears a sheer wrap, with a wreath of leaves crowning her dark, upswept hair and sprigs of white flowers lying by her bare feet. Van Der Zee hand-etched marks onto the negative that detail the leaves and flowers, and that suggest a pair of swans in the water, further heightening the sense of some magical drama out in nature.

Van Der Zee, whose work is currently on view at New York’s Howard Greenberg Gallery through April 27th, became famous for taking glamorous studio portraits as Harlem’s culture blossomed. Yet he hardly set out to offer a documentarian’s lens on the era: He merely offered a service for people in his own community.As poets such as Langston Hughes lyrically translated the spirit of their times into verse, and as painters like Aaron Douglas created imagery of freedom on canvas, Van Der Zee used black-and-white film to herald a new era of African-American autonomy and creativity. Contemporary black photographers and filmmakers such as Dawoud Bey, Jamel Shabazz, and Barry Jenkins have cited him as a major influence.

James Van Der Zee, Marcus Garvey with George O. Marke and Prince Kojo Tovalou-Houénou, 1924. © Donna Mussenden Van Der Zee. Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.


“I think there’s a lot to learn from his having been a resident artist.…He lived and worked there,” said the photographer’s widow, Donna Van Der Zee. “He knew the people, knew the community, and they knew him.”

Van Der Zee was born in Lenox, Massachusetts, in 1886. His parents—former household employees of President Ulysses S. Grant—encouraged creativity in their home. At age 14, Van Der Zee won a camera by selling the most perfumed sachets in a contest—but the camera had broken glass and didn’t work. He kept the instructions, saved up five dollars, and bought his own.

Around 1906, Van Der Zee moved to Harlem, dreaming of becoming a musician. He was a pianist and violinist, and founded the Harlem Orchestra with four other performers. He also worked as a music teacher, but he wasn’t making enough money to survive. “Because of the arrival of the phonograph, he said he could hear himself playing, but he wasn’t getting paid,” Donna recalled. In 1915, Van Der Zee got a job as a darkroom assistant at a New Jersey department store. Despite the era’s prevalent racism, the white clientele trusted and valued him and his work.

James Van Der Zee, Wedding Couple, 1934. © Donna Mussenden Van Der Zee. Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

James Van Der Zee, Bobby Sabu, Lightweight Golden Gloves Champ, 1954. © Donna Mussenden Van Der Zee. Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

The position gave Van Der Zee enough technical experience to confidently open his own studio in Harlem around 1915; he called it Guarantee Photo Studio. Throughout his six-decade career, he’d move shop three more times within the same neighborhood, becoming a fixture of the community.

In 1969, the Metropolitan Museum of Art included Van Der Zee’s work in its controversial exhibition “Harlem on My Mind.” Despite the widespread protests over the show, which included mostly white artists who didn’t live in the neighborhood, it also introduced its audience to Van Der Zee’s warm, intimate style.

Van Der Zee gained a reputation for making particularly flattering portraits. “He wanted to have his clients feel that they were looking handsome or beautiful,” Donna said, noting that his sitters brought their best clothes to the shoot. Such embellishments are evident in Wedding Couple (1934), which features a man in a black tuxedo and a woman holding a bouquet of flowers in a glowing white gown. Van Der Zee’s hand-coloration—dabs of green and pink on the petals—adds a dash of vibrancy and celebration to a photograph that captures a joyful, landmark moment in his subjects’ lives.

James Van Der Zee, Elks, 1931. © Donna Mussenden Van Der Zee. Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

Yet Van Der Zee didn’t just confine himself to his studio. The Howard Greenberg show also features pictures of nostalgia-inducing delicatessen, luncheonette, and restaurant façades, as well as the celebrities of the day, such as boxer Bobby Sabu. (Throughout his career, Van Der Zee also photographed entertainer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, poet Countee Cullen, and, late in the photographer’s life, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.) And for a particularly poignant project, Van Der Zee documented funerals, and eventually collected the pictures in The Harlem Book of the Dead (1978). But the photographs are far from bleak: Filled with ornate, flower-adorned caskets and radiating with light, they suggest a sense of hope. Van Der Zee’s varied oeuvre, then, offers a unique and broad view of a flourishing African-American culture throughout the 20th century.

As Van Der Zee himself rose to prominence, photographers such as Harry Hamburg and Anthony Barboza took their own pictures of their legendary predecessor. Not all snapshots of him, however, have been published—at least according to Donna. She recalled the day she met her husband: She’d met a new friend, an architect and photographer named Joe Black, at a party thrown by iconic jazz musician Duke Ellington. Black introduced her to Van Der Zee, and the three of them drove around Manhattan in a Mercedes convertible. Black snapped a picture of the pair, which Donna still owns—a record of the day she met her future husband. After Van Der Zee’s lifetime behind the camera capturing other people’s happiest moments, the roles, for once, were reversed.

Alina Cohen