Monday, February 11, 2008

Black History Month Salute - James Van Der Zee – Photographer

Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat photographed by James Van Der Zee, a Black History Month salute by Etsy Artists of Color

Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat photographed in 1982 by James Van Der Zee

In Harlem in the 1920s, photographer James Van Der Zee captured a side of America rarely seen in those days: black middle-class life. Well-heeled citizens with fancy cars and furs -- and the means to pay for fine art -- flocked to "Guarantee Photo," Van Der Zee's prestigious studio.

Once there, Van Der Zee worked photography magic, posing his proud clientele of the Harlem Renaissance to tell life stories. Many he'd give costumes to wear and surrounded them with props such as backdrops and architectural objects. All told, Van Der Zee's work took on a 'tableaux vivants' quality, styled with a Victorian or Edwardian sensibility. It's these images that most distinguish Van Der Zee's work.

But he also stepped outside this circle, pointing his camera at a broad spectrum of African American life. Many luminaries of the day also sought Van Der Zee's unique eye for portraiture. The Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Sr., boxing champion Jack Johnson, black nationalist movement leader Marcus Garvey, and entertainers such as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson were among Van Der Zee's celebrity subjects.

Equally intriguing are Van Der Zee's captures of everyday life. His frozen moments in churches, clubs, barber shops and at family gatherings will live on forever, showing future generations how self-love and community can look.

Once flourishing, Van Der Zee's photography business suffered during the Depression. His business also was impacted by the advent of personal cameras, as fewer people were seeking professional photography services. Ultimately, he was forced to shoot passport pictures and took on other small assignments for a living. For decades, he lived in relative obscurity.

But a wonderful thing happened in 1968. At the age of 82, the work of Van Der Zee was "discovered" when a photo researcher stumbled upon his 75,000-photo collection. Here was a matchless time capsule of African American history the world was intended to see. The discovery led to the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounting "Harlem On My Mind," an exhibit in 1969 which included Van Der Zee's work. Suddenly, Van Der Zee gained national recognition.

Now a new generation of influencers flocked to James Van Der Zee for portraits. In his later years, he photographed greats including Muhammed Ali, Bill Cosby, and Lou Rawls. In the art world, a favorite Van Der Zee is his portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat, impeccably capturing the renowned artists' enigma.

Photographer James Van Der Zee is remembered by Etsy Artists of Color during Black History Month.  Story by Viqi French of Urban Islands - Fine Art Photography
James Van Der Zee died in 1983, leaving the world a collection of powerful, black images. Inspiring and alluring images. For he specialized not in the downtrodden, but of the tall blades among us who exemplify our pride and beauty.

Etsy Artists of Color salutes James Van Der Zee with respect and admiration, always.

By Viqi French
Urban Islands – Fine Art Photography
Black History Month ACEO Art Card:
Wade In the Water

Image Credits: photoreview. org
Sources:, michaelrosenfeldart .com,, and


Anonymous said...

Wonderful post! Great job Viqi!

Etsy Artists of Color said...

Thanks so much, Dee! Be sure to also check out my ACEO art card with a Black History Month theme.

There's a link "Wade In the Water" at the end of this post. Or, you can click the image in my Etsy mini for more info.

Best to you,

Anonymous said...

Great essay! As a photographer myself this is so inspiring. Thanks Viqi!


Unknown said...

Awww, thanks Ren! ;-)

I so appreciate your comments.


ArmandoJavier said...

Nice article, I would have loved to have seen that exhibit.


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