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James VanDerZee

Born, 1886. Died, 1983

James VanDerZee was without question the foremost documenter of African-American life during the 20th century. His photographs – exclusively monochromatic – contrast sharply with the socio-documentary and journalistic aesthetics that have tended to dominate the ways in which African-Americans have been presented in photographic form, within the dominant media and in other quarters. Perhaps most strikingly, VanDerZee’s photographs resonate with a profound sense of empathy for his subjects. That empathy, together with a singular eye for composition and the construction of the image, make VanDerZee one of the greats of American photography of the 20th century.

We have much to thank VanDerZee for. In particular, his mid 1920s photographs of Marcus Garvey and various aspects of his Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (more commonly referred to as the UNIA) provide an invaluable document. VanDerZee has given us the opportunity to visualise Garvey and his activities, through a series of portraits and documentary photographs. Of particular significance are VanDerZee’s photographs of UNIA rallies, marches and demonstrations. His photograph of the Black Cross Nurses (a component of Garvey’s project) marching in formation, turned out in identical uniforms, gives us a sense of the sincerity, focus and intent of the UNIA, and a sense of its reach into virtually all aspects of its notions of racial uplift, community advancement, self-development, and nation building. Similarly, VanDerZee’s photographs of Garvey’s ill-fated Black Star Line enterprise stand as a testament to a woeful and financially crippling venture that was ultimately to play such a critical part in Garvey’s years of triumph and tragedy.

Perhaps VanDerZee’s most iconic photograph of Garvey is the one of the great Jamaican-born leader, in regalia, sitting in an open-topped sedan, surrounded by associates and other dignitaries of the UNIA. The photograph is near perfect in its composition and brings to life the image of Garvey and the singular nature of his approach to his political project. For decade after decade, up until the present moment in time, this image of Garvey by VanDerZee has charmed and inspired countless artists and graphic designers. The central aspect of the photograph – Garvey in his finest regalia – has been utilised on numerous record sleeves, book covers, tee shirts, and other paraphernalia, a compelling testament to the power of the original photograph, nearly a century after its taking and making. Perhaps one of the most noteworthy renderings of the photograph was that undertaken by Jamaican artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes. His grand portrait of Garvey is perhaps the most visually enduring legacy of the celebrations and activities generated by the centenary of Garvey’s birth, in 1987.

Artist Peter Bradley created a mixed media construction, Marcus Garvey (1970), a work that made use of iconic images of Garvey, including one of the most celebrated, by James VanDerZee. The work was included in Some American History, a bold and hugely important exhibition hosted by the Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Houston Texas, February 1971.

VanDerZee (along with a number of other African American photographers such as Richard Samuel Roberts and Morgan and Marvin Smith) was a sympathetic and indeed an empathetic documenter of affluence and aspirations to affluence. Said photographs contrast sharply with still dominant depictions of the poverty, misery, and marginalisation of African-Americans in the sharecropper south. Within VanDerZee’s studio portraits, we can almost read the entire motivation for the Great Migration, of African Americans from a rural south, (the images of which resonated with a formidable sense of ongoing discrimination and a corresponding lack of progress) to a rapidly industrialising, modernising, urban north. VanDerZee’s subjects appear to be living their lives, on their own terms, as literate, cultured, fully functional people, not necessarily or overly hidebound by wearying realities of racism and discrimination. VanDerZee’s portraits are of beautiful people, clearly happy to project themselves as such. Numerous examples of VanDerZee’s portraits are typical in this regard. Perhaps one of his most striking is that of Queen of Swastik, a beautiful, radiant young African American woman who has won some sort of pageant or philanthropic award. Draped across her is a sash bearing the words ‘Queen of Swastik’, a testimony to the motif’s widespread use within decorations and adornments before its hijacking or re-appropriation by Hitler’s Nazis. [Designers the world over, including African American ones, were drawn to utilise this swastika symbol in their adornments of buildings, the printed page, and so on. Particularly worthy of note is the swastika’s prevalence as a decorative device throughout early 20th century copies of the NAACP magazine, the Crisis.]

VanDerZee drifted in and out of relative periods of obscurity during the mid 20th century, though by the late 20th century, particularly in the years leading up to, and following his death in 1983, his pre-eminent place within (African) American photographic history has been assured and been bolstered by extensive scholarship and documentation.

Amongst the photographer’s later work, particularly intriguing is VanDerZee’s portrait of a young Jean-Michel Basquiat. The image of Basquiat has arguably perhaps, fared badly, on film, both fictional and non-fictional. But VanDerZee’s portrait reveals, or shows Basquiat as a sensitive and deeply thoughtful person, not yet caught up to any debilitating extent with drugs, cynicism and negativity. The perfect portrait of the artist as a young man.

An October 1970 issue of the legendary African American magazine, Ebony included an article, The Beautiful People of James VanDerZee | Veteran photographer captures 70 years of black life. The feature is particularly revealing, as it gives an insight into the personal and career highs and lows of one of America’s great photographers of the 20th century. Extract as follows: “Yet the artist may well have died unknown had it not been for a series of singular events. In 1967 [Reginald] McGhee, a black photographer, was conducting research for an exhibit “Harlem on My Mind.” He found Van DerZee in a Harlem studio along with possibly as many as 50,000 negatives. “It was amazing they had been kept in such condition,” McGhee recalls. VanDerZee thus became the exhibit’s principal contributor. But real fame awaited a tragedy of sorts, part of a life of bad luck that has haunted the photographer.

     VanDerZee and his wife, Gaynell, were evicted from their longtime home in Harlem. (They had purchased the house but later lost possession on a mortgage foreclosure.) On the day of the eviction, the New York Times carried a picture story showing the saddened photographer in front of the home. Aroused friends found lodgings for the couple; but more importantly, publishers with an eye for black subject matter suddenly became aware of the photographer’s existence.”

VanDerZee’s work was included in the exhibition Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance, which toured to galleries in the UK and the USA in 1997 and 1998.

Related items

click to show details of The ‘Beautiful People’ of James Van Der Zee

»  The ‘Beautiful People’ of James Van Der Zee

Article relating to an individual, 1970

click to show details of Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century

»  Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century

Book relating to a publication, 1997

click to show details of Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance

»  Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1997

Related exhibitions

Related venues

»  Arnolfini

Bristol, United Kingdom

»  The Corcoran Gallery of Art

Washington D.C., United States of America

»  Hayward Gallery

London, United Kingdom

»  Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre

Coventry, United Kingdom

»  M.H. de Young Memorial Museum

San Francisco, United States of America