James Van Der Zee: The Harlem Renaissance Photographer
The Harlem Renaissance was undoubtedly one of the most important periods of the 20th Century to every African American that lived through it, and all of those that have reaped the benefits ever since. The revolutionary movement that swept Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s was all about the literature, arts and performing arts that all African Americans could identify with. All mediums were used to express their racial identity as well as their personal individuality, and some artists flourished One of those artists was the now legendary photographer James Van Der Zee.
James Van Der Zee was a self-taught photographer, which set him apart from his peers even then. Although some others were self-taught, none achieved the fame and acclaim that he did. In fact, he is now known as one of the foremost American photographers of the 20th Century. However, he was arguably seen as the most prominent African American photographer of his time. Born in 1886 in Lenox, Massachusetts, Van Der Zee moved to Harlem in 1905 and made himself known through his work, including some of the most famous photographs ever taken.
The one thing that marks Van Der Zees work out as special was that the subject matter was not special. His photographs depicted every day Harlem life through various portraits of celebrities, families, weddings, funerals and other special events. A quote in the book Harlem Renaissance Art of Black America sums up his work perfectly: ‘In a remarkable photographic career, he captured the life and spirit of Harlem and its people during the two world wars, the literary and artistic Renaissance, the hard times of the depression, and the glorious era of swing.’ His photography pushed back racial and gender boundaries in many ways during the era.
By placing blacks in traditional settings he challenged racial stereotypes and, as the official photographer of the UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association), he managed to show a very different side of black life to that usually projected by white misconceptions and the consequent imposition of stereotypes. Van Der Zee’s favorite subjects were women, thus he altered gender boundaries and attempted to counter stereotypes in his work.
As well as pushing back boundaries, Van Der Zee effectively documented the era from an African American perspective, becoming on of the first people to do. His photographs revolutionized the way that individuals were viewed over time because it neutralized race. All of the images could have been considered idealistic because they were artistic and imaginative, as well as technically sound, and this put a new spin on African American life at that time.
Van Der Zee actually championed some innovative and little used techniques at that time too. He would often use three or four images to make the perfect shot, thus presenting his work as art as well as a lasting image of African American life. He also tended to alter the negatives of some of his photographs to paint African Americans in a better light. They often had straighter teeth, more hair, a better smile and jewelry that they were not wearing during the photo shoot. In this way, Van Der Zee was never satisfied with the quality of his work first time round. As a result of this, Van Der Zee was labeled experimental by his peers, and rightly so. He advanced photography significantly at the time, and especially in terms of the African American race.
It is fair to say that every individual with a knowledge of and appreciation for photography should know about Van Der Zee’s work. It provides a glimpse into the early 20th Century for everyone not lucky enough to have lived through the glory days. He contributed to photography and humanity and, as such, his work should be given the respect and indeed reverence that it deserves.