James Van Der Zee: Life and Death in Harlem

410wApWaenLOn the 29th of June 1886, the largely self-taught African American photographer James Van Der Zee was born in Lenox, Massachusetts. He became the leading photographer of the Harlem Renaissance, also known as the New Negro Movement or the New Negro Renaissance – the cultural movement that spanned the 1920s. The term New Negro was coined by the African American writer and philosopher Alain Leroy Locke who in 1925 co-wrote and co-edited an anthology of fiction, poetry, and essays on African and African-American art and literature titled The New Negro: An Interpretation. In his essay, Enter the New Negro, Locke stated: “…[T]he Negro today wishes to be known for what he is, even in his faults and shortcomings, and scorns a craven and precarious survival at the price of seeming to be what he is not. … He now becomes a conscious contributor and lays aside the status of beneficiary and ward for that of a collaborator and participant in American civilization. The great social gain in this is the releasing of our talented group from the arid fields of controversy and debate to the productive fields of creative expression.”

Between the two world wars, Van Der Zee responded to Alain Locke’s advocacy of the New Negro by photographing the black middle and upper-middle class of Harlem. Although his photographs are documentary, they are also infused with the cultural aspirations of black America during the 519cBWGToKLHarlem Renaissance. His portraits reflect a sense of pride in being black, affluent, and talented. His pictures of the Harlem’s streets show a bustling, vibrant neighbourhood, and a black community proud of its heritage and optimistic about its future. He photographed his community’s leaders, intelligentsia, and middle class, exploring a type of modernism associated with the intellectual and creative achievement, social engagement, upward mobility, and urban sophistication of African Americans. “As different Harlem organizations thrived, they wanted pictures of their membership and activities. Van Der Zee photographed one such group, the Harlem lodge of the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World, in 1925. The following year, he photographed another group, the Alpha Phi Aplha basketball team. The Moorish Zionist Temple, a Harlem synagogue, commissioned Van Der Zee in 1929.” (Aberjhani, Sandra L. West, Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance).

Van Der Zee was not familiar with either the avant-garde photographic practices in Europe, or the modernist straight photography produced closer to home by Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand. Nevertheless, his inquisitive mind led him to innovative photographic experimentation. He actively worked towards manipulating an image through careful composition, use of multiple negatives, retouching, dramatic lighting, and skilfully painted 51gdfsOdXLL._SX342_backdrops and props. “A stylistic unity connects Van Der Zee’s work. His use of light and shadow and elevation of average people compare with Caravaggio, an Italian painter of the 1600s. Similarly, his range of subjects, use of religious icons, and sensitivity in depicting the living and the dead resemble the treatment and output of Rembrandt, another 17th-century European painter. Moreover, the hazy imagery, nostalgic details, and contemplative poses in Van Der Zee’s photographs position him among the romanticists, painters of the mid- 1800s who aroused strong emotions.” (Aberjhani, West)

In the 1920s, Van Der Zee began photographing funerals of Harlem’s famous residents, using an eight-by-ten-inch camera. Some of these were memorial allegories that featured superimposed family members of the deceased with biblical figures, in multiple-image photographs. There was a great demand for funeral pictures in the 1920s and 1930s, and Van Der Zee 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. Van Der Zee’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.”

The popularity of the New Negro in art and commercial portrait photography lasted for the first four decades of the twentieth century. Van Der Zee died in 1983 at the age of 96, leaving behind a legacy of images so compelling that it’s hard to see Harlem through any other eyes. “In these photographs,” writes McGhee, “you will not see the common images of black Americans — downtrodden rural or urban citizens. Instead, you will see a people of great pride and fascinating beauty”.

You can view an anthology of photographs by James Van der Zee HERE.

Film Credit: Chooleta