VanDerZee, James 1886–1983
James VanDerZee 1886–1983
Purchased First Camera in 1900
First Photography Job Led to Studio Opening
Harlem: “The Undisputed Cultural Capital of Black America”
Setbacks and Rebounds Marked a Difficult Career
James VanDerZee was a pioneering African American photographer who came to be known as the “eyes of Harlem” in the 1920s and 1930s. His legacy includes some 100,000 photographic prints, negatives, and glass plates. VanDerZee took his first pictures in 1900, when photography was in its infancy. In his later years, he photographed such celebrities as comedian Bill Cosby and singer Lou Rawls. In between, his life was filled with setbacks, hardships, and unexpected fame.
According to Black Photographers Annual, VanDerZee was “best known for his capturing and preserving the pictorial history of Harlem U.S.A. during the first half of the twentieth century.” He worked from his studios in the heart of Harlem, first located on 135th Street and later on Lenox Avenue, throughout the Harlem Renaissance, a period during the 1920s when activity flourished among black writers, poets, playwrights, actors, artists, and musicians.
Photographer Reginald McGhee, who “rediscovered” VanDerZee in the late 1960s, wrote in the introduction to The World of James VanDerZee, “His works have brought a tremendous amount of warmth, pride, and true insight into the long neglected history of black Americans.” VanDerZee’s photographs captured the elegance of the jazz age of the 1920s and immortalized scenes from the Harlem Renaissance. His subjects included returning heroes and soldiers of World War I, Marcus Garvey and his “back-to-Africa” movement, the hardships of the Great Depression, the happier days of the later 1930s, images of birth and death, and numerous celebrities and ordinary families who made appointments to have their portraits taken at his studio.
VanDerZee approached photography as an art. He took great pains in posing and costuming his subjects, taking as much care with an ordinary family as with celebrities like famed dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson or boxer Joe Louis. He told Black Photographers Annual that he was never completely satisfied with a print unless he did some “extra work outside of what the camera did.” Deborah Willis-Braithwaite, author of the retrospective VanDerZee, Photographer: 1886-1983, noted in Emerge: “For VanDerZee,…studio photography seems to have been a form of theater, an opportunity to ‘tell a story’ with deliberately fictionalized elements.” His favorite techniques included retouching negatives, hand-tinting prints, and using double exposures.
“Harlem on My Mind” was a major photographic exhibition
At a Glance…
Born James Augustus VanDerZee, June 29,1886, in Lenox, MA; took the name Joseph upon conversion to Catholicism, 1915; died May 2, 1983, at the Howard University Hospital in Washington, DC; son of John (a butler and sexton) and Elizabeth (a maid) VanDerZee; married Kate Brown, 1907 (marriage ended); married Gaynella Greenlee, 1920 (died in 1976); married Donna Mussenden, June 15, 1978; children: (with Brown) one son, Emil (died at one year of age) and one daughter, Rachel (died at age fifteen). Education: Attended public schools in Lenox.
Worked as a musician and at other odd jobs in the early 1900s; photographer in Massachusetts, c. 1905, New York, 1906, and Virginia, 1907; portrait and street photographer in New York City, beginning 1908; opened first studio in Harlem in 1916. “Harlem on My Mind” exhibition held at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1969; photographic retrospective displayed at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC, October 20, 1993-February 21, 1994.
Selected awards: Pierre Toussaint Award, 1978; Living Legacy Award from President Jimmy Carter, 1978; Doctor of Humane Letters, Howard University, 1983; Fellow for Life, Metropolitan Museum of Art; American Society of Magazine Photographers Award.
at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969. VanDerZee’s photographs, many of them newly printed in life-size dimensions, formed a major part of that show. As a result, VanDerZee became something of a celebrity more than forty years into his career, and interest in his work increased.
McGhee, who served as the director of photographic research for “Harlem on My Mind,” first met VanDerZee in 1967 while scouting New York City for photographs to include in the show. VanDerZee told Black Photographers Annual: “When he came by and saw the collection I had, he felt there was no need to go any further. I had pictures of every description.” In fact, VanDerZee showed him a collection of approximately 75,000 glass plates, negatives, and prints, all carefully preserved. It was the photographer’s practice to sign and date almost all of his photographs, thus making the historian’s task much easier. “Harlem on My Mind” revealed VanDerZee to be the foremost chronicler of life in Harlem for the better part of the twentieth century. Yet, in spite of the show’s success, it did not result in great monetary rewards for the photographer. He was paid only $1,365 for the exhibition and $375 for a book about the show. VanDerZee’s collection of prints and negatives eventually formed the core collection of the VanDerZee Institute, which became a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1976 under the direction of McGhee.
Raised in an Artistic Family
James Augustus VanDerZee was born on June 29, 1886, in Lenox, Massachusetts. His parents, who had worked as a maid and butler for Ulysses S. Grant in New York City, moved to the resort city a few years prior to his birth, and his father became sexton in the town’s well-to-do Trinity Church.
VanDerZee was the second of six children and enjoyed a close-knit, comfortable family life. He grew up in a home where art and music were important. VanDerZee learned to play the violin and piano and frequently tried drawing. When he found that an image could be reproduced more easily with a camera, his interest turned to photography. VanDerZee later recalled that he took photographs in Lenox to occupy himself during long winters.
Purchased First Camera in 1900
VanDerZee began taking photographs in 1900 at the age of 14. He answered an advertisement that offered a camera and supplies as a reward for selling 20 packets of perfume at 10 cents apiece. It took him a couple of months to sell that many, but he eventually claimed his prize: a package containing a rudimentary camera, envelopes of chemicals, developing solutions, small glass plates, and cardboard trays covered with wax in which to develop the plates. Although he was unable to make any pictures with the crude instrument, he memorized the instruction booklet that came with the camera. Soon he acquired another camera and was taking pictures at school, where he made a name for himself as the school photographer.
VanDerZee departed Lenox around 1906 to go to New York City, his parents’ original home. He lived in a boarding house there and worked odd jobs as a busboy, waiter, and elevator operator. During his first year in the city, he met and married Kate Brown. In the fall of 1907 the couple moved to Virginia to be near Kate’s relatives. They lived in a small town called Phoebus, located near Hampton and Newport News. He worked at the Hotel Chamberlain and did some photography on the side.
While living in Phoebus, VanDerZee took photographs at the Whittier Preparatory School for Hampton Institute. According to Professor Regina A. Perry in James VanDerZee, his photographs of students and teachers there “revealed the work of a man with an eye sensitive to composition, texture, and light.” VanDerZee also sought out other subjects. Professor Perry noted, “One of the best-known photographs of the Phoebus period is the interior of a blacksmith’s shop of 1907, in which composition, dramatic light, and detail were captured with the mastery of a [late sixteenth-century Italian naturalist] Caravaggio painting.”
The VanDerZees spent about a year in Virginia, then returned to New York City in 1908. He used his musical talents to play with various professional groups, including the Fletcher Henderson Band and the John Wanamaker Orchestra. He also gave private lessons in violin and piano.
During this time, VanDerZee made more frequent trips to Lenox and began taking portraits of his family and friends. In these photographs, he solved problems associated with posing figures in outdoor light; he also developed his sense of composition, depth, and detail. The photographs from Virginia and Massachusetts—consisting largely of shots of his wife, Kate, his daughter, Rachel, and other relatives and friends posed formally in natural settings—form a major period in VanDerZee’s body of work that contrasts with his later, urban work, which was done in and around his Harlem studio.
First Photography Job Led to Studio Opening
In 1915 VanDerZee was hired for his first official job in photography—as a darkroom assistant for the photography concession in a Newark, New Jersey, department store. He was paid five dollars per week and often acted as a substitute photographer when his employer was away. Eventually he became popular with the store’s clientele because he would take his time in posing his subjects. The resulting photographs, which were priced three for twenty-five cents, were developed while the customer waited. VanDerZee learned the system of making any size print by using a projecting machine and blowing up wet negatives. The job provided him with valuable technical experience and his first taste of commercial photography.
Around 1916, he opened his first studio, Guarantee Photos, on 135th Street in Harlem. One of his first major clients was the Catholic church. Although he was raised Episcopalian, VanDerZee had joined St. Mark’s Methodist church when he first went to New York City. He converted to Catholicism in 1915 and began taking photographs on assignment from the church.
World War I provided an impetus to the photographer’s newly established business. He told interviewers in The World of James VanDerZee, “It looked like everybody was going into the army.” The boys would have their photos taken before they went away, and the parents would have their photos taken to send to their sons overseas. Then, when the soldiers came back, VanDerZee would take pictures of them in uniform.
VanDerZee’s business flourished, and he soon moved his studio to 272 Lenox Avenue in Harlem, renaming it GGG Studio after his second wife, Gaynella, whom he had recently married. They would remain together until her death in 1976. It was from his two studios in Harlem that VanDerZee took thousands of photographs that chronicled the life of African Americans in Harlem.
Harlem: “The Undisputed Cultural Capital of Black America”
Perry wrote that the largest body of VanDerZee’s photographs were “taken in Harlem during the period in which that community was the undisputed cultural capital of black America.” Many black celebrities of the 1920s and 1930s visited VanDerZee’s GGG Studio. He photographed Florence Mills, the leading African American entertainer of the time, at the height of her career. (Later, in 1927, he photographed her funeral.) Among the other entertainment figures of the era photographed by VanDerZee were William “Bojangles” Robinson, the Mills Brothers, Mamie Smith, and Hazel Scott. In addition, VanDerZee took famous shots of several boxers, including Joe Louis, heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, featherweight champion Kid Chocolate, and heavyweight Sam Langford. Religious leaders also played a very important role in Harlem, and VanDerZee photographed influential Baptist minister Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., his son, Adam, Jr., the engimatic cult leader Father Divine, and Daddy Grace, among others.
In 1924 VanDerZee was named the official photographer of Marcus Garvey and the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Garvey, the leader of a black separatist movement, advocated relocating African Americans to Africa. His Negro World office was located across Lenox Avenue from GGG Studio, and VanDerZee was called upon to photograph parades, conventions, and rallies. He subsequently amassed the most extensive collection of photographs depicting the separatist movement.
Women were another favorite subject of VanDerZee’s. He often photographed A’Lelia Walker, daughter of hair products tycoon Madame C. J. Walker, at tea parties in the family’s fashionable salon. Another regular customer was Madame Washington of the Apex School of Beauty Culture, for whom VanDerZee would photograph numerous graduating classes.
VanDerZee’s many images of women reveal his romantic, tender side. In addition to portraits, he shot some discreetly posed nudes and photographed models in bathing suits, contemporary fashions, and furs. Women also appeared in wedding portraits and numerous family portraits. Perry suggested that “some pictures of women and children in the early Lenox family portraits and later studio work represent loving, gentle Madonna images.”
Many of VanDerZee’s studio portraits were taken on Sundays. He told Black Photographers Annual, “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.” His carefully posed family portraits, including those of his own family, reveal that the family unit was an important aspect of VanDerZee’s life. Perry commented that he “was always astute about posing subjects and devoted so much time to it that he was frequently unable to complete more than three sittings a day.”
In the 1930s VanDerZee discovered that calendar companies wanted black family group portraits. When he posed his subjects for portraits, he would ask them to sign a release allowing suitable pictures to be used in a calendar. He then submitted the photographs to calendar companies needing African American subjects. He also had thousands of calendars made up himself to promote his own business and use for gifts.
There was a great demand for funeral pictures in the 1920s and 1930s, and VanDerZee photographed the funerals of many famous people. He often inserted images of Christ, angels, and various objects in his funeral pictures through the use of double exposure. He also took many death portraits of children. VanDerZee’s sensitive treatment of this subject may have been due in part to his experience with the early deaths of siblings and offspring in his own family. Perry noted that the dead children “were generally placed on couches holding favorite toys in life-like attitudes suggestive of sleep rather than death.”
Setbacks and Rebounds Marked a Difficult Career
It is not clear exactly when VanDerZee stopped taking photographs. The advent of inexpensive cameras in the 1950s and 1960s greatly diminished his clientele. By 1967, when he was “rediscovered” by Reginald McGhee, his work consisted almost entirely of restoring and recopying his old photographs for mail order commissions he received from around the world. He was still working in a crowded GGG Studio when McGhee approached him regarding the “Harlem on My Mind” exhibition.
After this wave of fame swept over him in the late 1960s, VanDerZee’s career took a downward curve in the 1970s. He lost his home and moved to smaller quarters. His wife, Gaynella, died in 1976. Shortly after her death he met Donna Mussenden. He was living in a “drab and unkempt flat, lame, broke, and in bad health,” she told Ebony magazine. She committed herself to cleaning up his apartment and organizing his files. In 1978 she resigned her position as director of the National Urban League’s Art Gallery and married VanDerZee.
With his new 34-year-old wife organizing exhibitions, lecture dates, and public appearances for him, VanDerZee reopened his studio in her old apartment in the early 1980s. Using the Calumet box camera he had worked with 20 years previously, he took photographs of celebrities like Bill Cosby, Lou Rawls, Muhammad Ali, Miles Davis, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Eubie Blake for $1,000 a sitting. This final aspect of VanDerZee’s long career ended in May of 1983, when he died of a heart attack only hours after receiving a Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C.
According to some critics, VanDerZee’s photographs confirm that he was an idealist, a dreamer, and a romantic at heart. A major retrospective of his work—exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C, from October 20, 1993 through February 21, 1994—solidified his reputation as the premier photographic chronicler of the Harlem Renaissance.
Crawford, Joe, Black Photographers Annual, Volume 4, Another View, 1980.
De Cock, Liliane, and Reginald McGhee, James VanDerZee, Morgan & Morgan, 1973.
McGhee, Reginald, The World of James VanDerZee, Grove, 1969.
VanDerZee, James, Owen Dodson, and Camille Billops, The Harlem Book of the Dead, Morgan & Morgan, 1978.
Willis-Braithwaite, Deborah, VanDerZee, Photographer: 1886-1983, Abrams, 1993.
Willis-Thomas, Deborah, editor, Black Photographers, 1840-1940: An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography, Garland, 1985.
Ebony, October 1970, p. 85; May 1981, p. 150.
Emerge, November 1993, pp. 88-89.
Jet, July 2, 1984, p. 29.
New York Times, October 17, 1971; May 16, 1983, p. B-8.
New York Times Biographical Service, May 1983, p. 624.
Smithsonian, June 1975, p. 84.
James VanDer Zee
James VanDer Zee
James VanDer Zee (1886-1983) created a photographic history of the people of Harlem—celebrities and ordinary people, in hope and despair—covering over 60 years.
James VanDer Zee was born in Lenox, Massachusetts, on June 29, 1886, in a four bedroom frame house built by his grandfather. His parents had moved to Lenox three years earlier from New York City, where they had worked as a maid and butler to retired President Ulysses S. Grant. James was the second of six children.
His parents earned their living in Lenox by baking, and their sons delivered the products on foot and horseback. The VanDer Zee youngsters were such excellent students that James once told a reporter that "the other kids didn't try." VanDer Zee learned photography in a front bedroom of that frame house, but he was at least 14 before he took a picture that satisfied him—one of his brother Walter's school class. Moreover, their lives were enriched by such outstanding houseguests as W. E. B. DuBois, the noted African American author and intellectual.
While excelling at the piano and violin, young Jimmy was frustrated by forced painting lessons. But when a magazine advertisement offered a camera as a premium for selling pink and yellow silk sachets to the ladies of Lenox, he leapt at the opportunity, ending up with an $8 camera that would eventually launch him on a career in which he would become one of the great photographers of the United States.
Moving to New York City after the turn of the century, James and his brother Walter joined their father, who was now working as a waiter. For 20 years VanDer Zee usually worked two jobs. Until he got his first professional photography job in a Newark, New Jersey, department store photography concession in 1913, by day he was an elevator operator or waiter; at night, he was a musician in various bands, including his own and Fletcher Henderson's.
VanDer Zee married Kate Brown in the early 1900s and moved to Phoebus, Virginia, for a year. His first child, Rachel, was born there. She died when she was 16, and a son, born when the couple returned to New York, died in infancy. Kate VanDer Zee left her husband in 1915.
Before the end of World War I VanDer Zee hung out a sign on 138th Street that announced his first studio— Guarantee Photo Studio, later changed to GGG Studio for his second wife, Gaynella.
There, in the 1920s and 1930s, he set about photographing his Harlem and making it famous. He photographed such celebrities as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the famous dancer; Florence Mills, the beautiful actress; Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., minister of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church; writer Countee Cullen; Joe Louis; and former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. He was the official photographer for Marcus Garvey, the charismatic African American nationalist who promoted a "Back to Africa" movement in the 1920s, snapping pictures of his elaborate parades.
He also portrayed the ordinary African American citizen on ceremonial occasions from funerals to weddings with dignity, artistry, and compassion. One picture shows an African American soldier, his chest adorned with World War I medals, gazing into a fireplace where the photographer had inserted a younger soldier and a nurse marching under an American flag.
When home cameras became popular in the 1940s— "Brownies made everybody a photographer, " VanDer Zee once told an interviewer with characteristic modesty—his portrait business dwindled and he supplemented it by developing a mail order restoration and calendar picture clientele. But he continued to lovingly photograph brides, the character in the faces of such celebrities as pianist Hazel Scott, the ceremonies of the Moorish Jews, and the burgeoning manhood in the basketball team of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.
But it was only in 1969, when he was past 80, that VanDer Zee received any recognition outside of Harlem, and he was catapulted into national prominence—and, for a time, personal misfortune. In 1968, at the height of the American Black Consciousness Movement, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art had decided to mount an exhibition called "Harlem on My Mind." In researching the exhibition, a young African American photographer named Reginald McGhee happened by VanDer Zee's Harlem studio. "I discovered a gold mine, " McGhee said later. "There was a perfect record of 60 years in Harlem." VanDer Zee gave McGhee free access to the more than 100, 000 photographs he had signed and dated. Providing 90 percent of the visual material for the exhibition, VanDer Zee received $3, 700 from the museum for the use of his work.
In part because photography was at that time coming into recognition as a fine art and gaining the stamp of approval of collectors who purchased vintage photographs as good investments in a time of economic recession, VanDer Zee quickly became a cult figure. He began talks with McGhee about forming the James VanDer Zee Institute.
But at about the same time the aging artist was gaining new prominence, misfortune struck. He and his wife were evicted from the home and studio where he had lived for 29 years, forced to put most of the family's possessions in storage, go on public assistance, and move to a Bronx Hotel. VanDer Zee, who had developed a grandfatherly relationship with McGhee, asked him to store his work. Moreover, because of the proposed institute, VanDer Zee turned down a $175, 0000 offer from Time-Life, Inc. for his collection. The institute was formed three months after VanDer Zee's eviction from his home, and despite his destitute condition, VanDer Zee allegedly signed over the rights to his work and its reproduction to the institute. But as his personal fortune continued to fall and the fledgling institute sporadically gave him only small stipends, a dispute arose between him and the institute directors, and VanDer Zee later denied that he signed over to them all his work.
Meanwhile, his reputation in the photography field continued to escalate. In 1969 the American Society of Magazine Photographers honored him and Grove Press published "The World of James VanDer Zee." Two years later he was elected a Fellow for Life at the Metropolitan Museum.
In 1976 VanDer Zee's ailing wife died, and he disappeared even further from the public limelight. A year earlier VanDer Zee had been introduced by a mutual friend to a young woman, Donna Mussenden, who later came to the drab and unkempt flat where VanDer Zee—lame, broke, and in bad health—was living. Concerned that an African American cultural giant was being neglected, she stepped in after his wife's death, cleaning up his home, organizing his files, and visiting him on a regular basis to lift his spirits. Two years later VanDer Zee married the young woman, and, in what Ebony magazine called "an extraordinary renaissance unprecedented in the history of American photographers, " VanDer Zee resumed his career and created a new life. Crediting his wife with his resuscitation, he began once again to take photographs after a hiatus of 12 years and photographed such celebrities as comedian Bill Cosby, former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, and actress Cicely Tyson. Suing to regain his work, VanDer Zee successfully obtained 75 percent of his photographs, one-quarter of those to become the property of the James VanDer Zee Foundation. Although mostly confined to a wheelchair, he travelled across the country with the aid of his wife, gave lectures, had exhibitions, and made public appearances. His "The Harlem Book of the Dead" was published in 1978, and a young people's biography, "James VanDer Zee, the Picture Takin' Man, " came out the following year. He received six honorary doctorates and was honored by President Jimmy Carter. VanDer Zee died in May 1983 at age 96.
VanDer Zee's first photos to be published were contained in Harlem on My Mind (1968), edited by Allan Schoener. A more comprehensive collection is in The World of James VanDer Zee: A Visual Record of Black America (1969), edited by Reginald McGhee. Several of VanDer Zee's photos were included in The Black Photographer's Annual 1972 (1973). □