Celebrating creative black trailblazers for #BHM; meet…
Name: James Van Der Zee
Born: June 29, 1886 - May 15, 1983. Lenox, Massachusetts (US)
Creative Discipline: Photographer
Known for: For his portraits of black New Yorkers, and as a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
James was the second of six children and enjoyed a close-knit family. As a child he learned piano, violin, and art. He discovered photography as a hobby in his hometown of Lenox. At age fourteen he received his first camera from a magazine promotion. His interest with the toy camera led him to getting a slightly better camera, with which he would take hundreds of photographs of the town and his family.
He was only the second person in Lenox to own a camera, and he developed the images himself. This early start led him to a vast and prolific career documenting each decade in his unique style of photography.
He was a skilled pianist and an aspiring professional violinist. After moving to New York with his brother and father, music lessons were a prime source of income for Van Der Zee. At one point, he co-created and performed in the five-piece Harlem Orchestra.
At age 29, he worked as a dark room technician at Gertz Department Store in Newark, New Jersey. He would substitute as a photographer when his employer was unavailable. Patrons enjoyed his creative manner of shooting subjects. This encouraged him to open his own studio, Guarantee Photography, within two years, and he was immediately successful. In 1932, he outgrew his first studio and went on to open the larger GGG Studio
National recognition was given to him at age 82, when his collection of 75,000 photographs spanning a period of six decades of African-American life was discovered by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His photos were featured in 1969 as part of the Harlem on my Mind exhibition. From the 1970s until his death in 1983, Van Der Zee photographed the many celebrities who had come across his work and promoted him throughout the country. He was known to have brought the spirit of Harlem to life. Among his most famous subjects during this time were Marcus Garvey, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Countee Cullen.
Article by Lucy G / 4th October 2012