June 29, 1886
May 15, 1983
Photographer James Augustus VanDerZee was born in Lenox, Massachusetts, the eldest son and second child of Susan Brister and John VanDerZee. He grew up in Lenox and attended the public schools there. In 1900 he won a small box camera as the premium for selling packets of sachet powder. Shortly afterward he purchased a larger camera and began photographing family members, friends, and residents in Lenox. Thus began his lifelong commitment to photography. In 1906 VanDerZee and his brother Walter moved to New York City to join their father, who was working there. By this time VanDerZee was already an accomplished photographer; however, his first New York job was waiting tables in the private dining room of a bank. In New York he met his first wife, Kate L. Brown, whom he married in 1907. The next year he and Kate moved to Phoebus, Virginia, then a small resort town near her home at Newport News. He worked as a waiter at the popular Hotel Chamberlin, a favored resort for the wealthy in Hampton. While in Virginia, VanDerZee continued photographing and made some of his most notable early images: photographs of the faculty and students of the Whittier School, a preparatory academy for Hampton Institute.
In 1908, after the birth of their first child Rachel, the family returned to New York. VanDerZee continued working at a variety of jobs, including photography. For a brief period he commuted to Newark, New Jersey, where he operated the camera in a department-store portrait studio. In 1910, a son, Emile, was born. At the end of the first quarter-century of his life, James VanDerZee had much to celebrate—he was twice a father, happily married, and a success in the economically competitive world of pre–World War I New York. But this period of happiness did not last long. Emile died in 1911, and the following year, VanDerZee and Kate separated.
VanDerZee had recovered sufficiently by 1916 to open his first photography portrait studio. It was in Harlem, on 135th Street at Lenox Avenue. He also had a partner in the enterprise, his new wife, Gaynella Greenlee Katz. From 1916 to 1931 VanDerZee stayed at this location, and the studio became one of Harlem's most prominent photographic operations. He specialized in portraits and wedding photographs but also took on assignments away from the studio. Among these assignments was his work for Marcus Garvey in 1924. It was also during these years that VanDerZee began his experimental photomontage assemblages.
VanDerZee and his wife weathered the Great Depression, and in 1943, in the midst of World War II (1939–45), they purchased the building they had been renting at 272 Lenox Avenue. For the rest of the decade he continued his portrait work and took assignments for a variety of Harlem customers. However, a decline in business began to set in during the early 1950s. Ultimately, all he could maintain was a mail-order restoration business. Through a complicated series of loans and second mortgages, the VanDerZees were able to keep their property until 1969, when they were evicted. Ironically, VanDerZee's greatest fame and success as a photographer were yet to come.
Two years before his eviction, VanDerZee had met Reginald McGhee, who was a curator for the Metropolitan Museum exhibition Harlem on My Mind. Through McGhee's efforts, his work of the previous four decades became the central visual focus of the exhibition. The photographs became some of the most written-about images in the history of photography, while their maker was reduced to living on welfare. VanDerZee's fame grew when in 1969 McGhee and other young black photographers formed the James VanDerZee Institute, which showed his work in the United States and abroad. His photographs became even more widely known when three monographs were published during the 1970s. By the second half of that decade, VanDerZee's work was being sought out by both institutional and individual collectors. By the time Gaynella died in 1976, VanDerZee had become a symbol of artistry and courage to the Harlem community. He resumed making portraits, spoke at conferences, and gave countless interviews. In 1978, he was named the first recipient of the New York Archdiocese Pierre Toussaint Award. That year he married for the third time, to Donna Mussendon, a woman sixty years his junior.
In 1980, with his wife's help, VanDerZee began a series of portraits of African-American celebrities. Among his sitters were Eubie Blake, Miles Davis, Cicely Tyson, and Muhammad Ali. He made his last portrait, for art historian Reginia Perry, in February 1983. VanDerZee died on May 15, 1983. That day he had received an honorary doctorate of humane letters at the Howard University commencement. He was ninety-six years old.
De Cock, Liliane, and Reginald McGhee. James VanDerZee.New York, 1973.
McGhee, Reginald. The World of James VanDerZee: A Visual Record of Black Americans. New York: Grove Press, 1969.
VanDerZee, James, et al. The Harlem Book of the Dead. New York: Morgan and Morgan, 1978.
Westerbeck, Colin, ed. The James VanDerZee Studio. Chicago:Art Institute of Chicago, 2004.
rodger c. birt (1996)