James VanDer Zee (1886-1983) created a photographic history of the people of Harlem—celebrities and ordinary people, in hope and despair—covering over 60 years.
James VanDer Zee was born in Lenox, Massachusetts, on June 29, 1886, in a four bedroom frame house built by his grandfather. His parents had moved to Lenox three years earlier from New York City, where they had worked as a maid and butler to retired President Ulysses S. Grant. James was the second of six children.
His parents earned their living in Lenox by baking, and their sons delivered the products on foot and horseback. The VanDer Zee youngsters were such excellent students that James once told a reporter that "the other kids didn't try." VanDer Zee learned photography in a front bedroom of that frame house, but he was at least 14 before he took a picture that satisfied him—one of his brother Walter's school class. Moreover, their lives were enriched by such outstanding houseguests as W. E. B. DuBois, the noted African American author and intellectual.
While excelling at the piano and violin, young Jimmy was frustrated by forced painting lessons. But when a magazine advertisement offered a camera as a premium for selling pink and yellow silk sachets to the ladies of Lenox, he leapt at the opportunity, ending up with an $8 camera that would eventually launch him on a career in which he would become one of the great photographers of the United States.
Moving to New York City after the turn of the century, James and his brother Walter joined their father, who was now working as a waiter. For 20 years VanDer Zee usually worked two jobs. Until he got his first professional photography job in a Newark, New Jersey, department store photography concession in 1913, by day he was an elevator operator or waiter; at night, he was a musician in various bands, including his own and Fletcher Henderson's.
VanDer Zee married Kate Brown in the early 1900s and moved to Phoebus, Virginia, for a year. His first child, Rachel, was born there. She died when she was 16, and a son, born when the couple returned to New York, died in infancy. Kate VanDer Zee left her husband in 1915.
Before the end of World War I VanDer Zee hung out a sign on 138th Street that announced his first studio— Guarantee Photo Studio, later changed to GGG Studio for his second wife, Gaynella.
There, in the 1920s and 1930s, he set about photographing his Harlem and making it famous. He photographed such celebrities as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the famous dancer; Florence Mills, the beautiful actress; Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., minister of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church; writer Countee Cullen; Joe Louis; and former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. He was the official photographer for Marcus Garvey, the charismatic African American nationalist who promoted a "Back to Africa" movement in the 1920s, snapping pictures of his elaborate parades.
He also portrayed the ordinary African American citizen on ceremonial occasions from funerals to weddings with dignity, artistry, and compassion. One picture shows an African American soldier, his chest adorned with World War I medals, gazing into a fireplace where the photographer had inserted a younger soldier and a nurse marching under an American flag.
When home cameras became popular in the 1940s— "Brownies made everybody a photographer, " VanDer Zee once told an interviewer with characteristic modesty—his portrait business dwindled and he supplemented it by developing a mail order restoration and calendar picture clientele. But he continued to lovingly photograph brides, the character in the faces of such celebrities as pianist Hazel Scott, the ceremonies of the Moorish Jews, and the burgeoning manhood in the basketball team of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.
But it was only in 1969, when he was past 80, that VanDer Zee received any recognition outside of Harlem, and he was catapulted into national prominence—and, for a time, personal misfortune. In 1968, at the height of the American Black Consciousness Movement, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art had decided to mount an exhibition called "Harlem on My Mind." In researching the exhibition, a young African American photographer named Reginald McGhee happened by VanDer Zee's Harlem studio. "I discovered a gold mine, " McGhee said later. "There was a perfect record of 60 years in Harlem." VanDer Zee gave McGhee free access to the more than 100, 000 photographs he had signed and dated. Providing 90 percent of the visual material for the exhibition, VanDer Zee received $3, 700 from the museum for the use of his work.
In part because photography was at that time coming into recognition as a fine art and gaining the stamp of approval of collectors who purchased vintage photographs as good investments in a time of economic recession, VanDer Zee quickly became a cult figure. He began talks with McGhee about forming the James VanDer Zee Institute.
But at about the same time the aging artist was gaining new prominence, misfortune struck. He and his wife were evicted from the home and studio where he had lived for 29 years, forced to put most of the family's possessions in storage, go on public assistance, and move to a Bronx Hotel. VanDer Zee, who had developed a grandfatherly relationship with McGhee, asked him to store his work. Moreover, because of the proposed institute, VanDer Zee turned down a $175, 0000 offer from Time-Life, Inc. for his collection. The institute was formed three months after VanDer Zee's eviction from his home, and despite his destitute condition, VanDer Zee allegedly signed over the rights to his work and its reproduction to the institute. But as his personal fortune continued to fall and the fledgling institute sporadically gave him only small stipends, a dispute arose between him and the institute directors, and VanDer Zee later denied that he signed over to them all his work.
Meanwhile, his reputation in the photography field continued to escalate. In 1969 the American Society of Magazine Photographers honored him and Grove Press published "The World of James VanDer Zee." Two years later he was elected a Fellow for Life at the Metropolitan Museum.
In 1976 VanDer Zee's ailing wife died, and he disappeared even further from the public limelight. A year earlier VanDer Zee had been introduced by a mutual friend to a young woman, Donna Mussenden, who later came to the drab and unkempt flat where VanDer Zee—lame, broke, and in bad health—was living. Concerned that an African American cultural giant was being neglected, she stepped in after his wife's death, cleaning up his home, organizing his files, and visiting him on a regular basis to lift his spirits. Two years later VanDer Zee married the young woman, and, in what Ebony magazine called "an extraordinary renaissance unprecedented in the history of American photographers, " VanDer Zee resumed his career and created a new life. Crediting his wife with his resuscitation, he began once again to take photographs after a hiatus of 12 years and photographed such celebrities as comedian Bill Cosby, former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, and actress Cicely Tyson. Suing to regain his work, VanDer Zee successfully obtained 75 percent of his photographs, one-quarter of those to become the property of the James VanDer Zee Foundation. Although mostly confined to a wheelchair, he travelled across the country with the aid of his wife, gave lectures, had exhibitions, and made public appearances. His "The Harlem Book of the Dead" was published in 1978, and a young people's biography, "James VanDer Zee, the Picture Takin' Man, " came out the following year. He received six honorary doctorates and was honored by President Jimmy Carter. VanDer Zee died in May 1983 at age 96.
Further Reading on James VanDer Zee
VanDer Zee's first photos to be published were contained in Harlem on My Mind (1968), edited by Allan Schoener. A more comprehensive collection is in The World of James VanDer Zee: A Visual Record of Black America (1969), edited by Reginald McGhee. Several of VanDer Zee's photos were included in The Black Photographer's Annual 1972 (1973).