Notes on James Van Der Zee

By Jade Flint

James Van Der Zee,  Untitled,  1931, silver gelatin print, From the Myrna Colley-Lee Collection.  

James Van Der Zee, Untitled, 1931, silver gelatin print, From the Myrna Colley-Lee Collection.

Roughly two generations removed from slavery, black intellectuals and artists struggled with how to accurately portray themselves in a way that would show the depth and sheer humanity of the community in a time when Jim Crow and lynching were still commonplace below the Mason-Dixon line. Intellectuals such as W.E.B. Dubois argued that art is a propaganda that should be used accordingly and carefully with full awareness of how it may be perceived and how that hurts or helps the believed value in African-Americans as a race. In contrast, younger artists, like Langston Hughes, believed that they should be able to express themselves as the black individuals they were without fearing any shame to the credit of their race. 

Eventually known for his unique way of portraying the black middle class of Harlem as visual objects of black opulence, James Van Der Zee was born in Lennox, Massachusetts in 1886 and later moving to New York City where his parents worked as a maid and butler to former President Ulysses S. Grant. Van Der Zee picked up his first camera at age 17. However, it was his second camera that really allowed him to learn and practice enough to eventually become the official photographer of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association.  

Seeking to capture the magnificence of everyday Harlem, James Van Der Zee photographed all facets of Harlem life such as the Barefoot Prophet, who was a infamous street preacher that was a commonplace figure in Harlem. He photographed black celebrities of the day such as Adam Clayton Powell, Jack Johnson, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.  However, he became famous for his staged studio depictions of the middle class. He represented them with an elaborate use of props and specific posing to emphasize ideas that these black people could exude dignity and elegance too. 

James Van Der Zee,  Barefoot Prophet,  1929, silver gelatin print, From the Myrna Colley-Lee Collection.

James Van Der Zee, Barefoot Prophet, 1929, silver gelatin print, From the Myrna Colley-Lee Collection.

The manner in which black people were represented was arguably crucial to survival in America as black people. A person’s very survival depended upon how other people perceived them. In that sense, photography is the perfect media to freeze the perfect moment in time. Black people could utilize portrait photography as a method to create and enhance themselves in a tangible way. Black people, such as W.E.B. DuBois, immediately recognized the value of the narrative photographs could tell in regard to the stereotypes about black people. Imagery is what really emblazes stereotypes into our brains. Black people in America were previously never in control of the narrative about their humanity. The work of artists and photographers such as James Van Der Zee allowed the black middle class of Harlem to create new cultural stereotypes and record their history for future generations; they were stylish, educated, and everything else imaginable. They were the grandchildren of enslaved people and far removed from the constraints of plantations of the South or so they willed themselves to believe.  

See Van Der Zee's work in person at LSU MOA through October 1 in conjunction with Reflections: African American Life from the Myrna Colley-Lee Collection

Jade Flint is a Howard University student and curatorial volunteer at LSU MOA this summer.

Reflections is organized by International Arts & Artists, Washington, DC, in collaboration with the office of Myrna Colley-Lee.