Faces of the Harlem Renaissance

James VanDerZee

1886-1983 / Photographer

A superlative studio photographer, James VanDerZee captured the spirit and energy of life in Harlem for more than 50 years.

Like so many pivotal figures of the Harlem Renaissance, VanDerZee originally embarked on a career totally other than the one in which he ultimately excelled.

Arriving in Harlem as an aspiring violinist in 1906, he formed—and performed with—the Harlem Orchestra. VanDerZee was equally skilled at piano; he often tickled the ivories with such jazz giants as Fletcher Henderson.

On regular return visits from Harlem to his hometown of Lenox, Massachusetts, VanDerZee found himself shooting pictures of the beloved place as a hobby. In 1915 he landed a job as a darkroom technician, and within just two years he had opened his own studio on 135th Street. From that base he began to document all faces and facets of the local community.

VanDerZee's work exhibited artistic as well as technical mastery. Thanks to his genius for darkroom experimentation—retouching negatives, for example, and creating double exposures—the demand for his portraiture soon skyrocketed.

Many of VanDerZee's photographs celebrate the life of the emergent black middle class. Using the conventions of studio portrait photography, he composed images that reflected his clients' dignity, independence, and material comfort, characterizing the time as one of achievement, idealism, and success. VanDerZee's photographs portray the Harlem of the 1920s and 1930s as a community that managed to be simultaneously talented, spiritual, and prosperous.