Artist of the Month: James Van Der Zee

Welcome to the November 2018 edition of my “Artist of the Month” series. Over the course of this series, I always strive to share artists that demonstrate some elements of distinctiveness within the vast realm of art, and this month’s artist, James Van Der Zee, remains truly idiosyncratic within Art History’s narrative.


Born in Lenox, Massachusetts in 1886, Van Der Zee was a talented musician from an early age, eager to become a professional violinist. However, by the age of fourteen, he discovered a new gift – photography. Being one of the first people in Lenox to own a camera, he worked tirelessly to develop his craft by taking countless photographs of family members and his hometown. A recurring theme in Van Der Zee’s work was the up-and-coming black middle class. With his traditional technique and artistic vision, Van Der Zee wanted to depict opulence and affluence. I guess you could say he birthed the twenty-first-century concept of “black excellence” as demonstrated by the likes of Jay Z and Beyonce. By the end of his career, Van Der Zee was the “go-to” photographer for celebrities throughout the country, capturing prominent figures such as Marcus Garvey and Florence Mills. His photography serves still as a timeless keepsake of the Harlem Renaissance.


Following the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the economic devastation that ensued, documentary photography had begun to take on an increasingly significant role in documenting America’s social issues. As the economy collapsed, the photographic archive of 1930s American life grew, and photography emerged as the dominant medium for democratic expression. However, despite the fact that American ethnicities include White, Asian, Hispanic, Native, and Asian Americans, the photographs of the period predominantly featured white subjects. From Dorothea Lange to Walker Evans, the iconic photographs of this time all seemed to bear white faces. Black America was also extremely hard hit by the Great Depression, and their plight was famously revealed in Richard Wright and Edwin Rosskam’s book, Twelve Million Black Voices. This is what makes Van Der Zee’s work so radical, it presented the African American body as an exalted entity within dignified spaces at a time when American lives were drastically changing.


Van Der Zee’s work was conceptually detached from the morbidity of the Great Depression and distanced even further from the “watermelon pictures” that had been produced by white photographers. Van Der Zee’s photographs exhibited an unprecedented black America; an America where its black citizens not only had a face but were in the midst of their own cultural uprising. His idealized portrayals are arguably the most revealing to the truth of the black body as they showed aspects of African American life which were inconsistent with the racial stereotypes of the time. His photos were, and remain to be, culturally pivotal for the simple fact that they countered the reduction of African American history as absolute devastation. By defying the racialized gaze of society, Van Der Zee was able to produce a new image of black subjectivity that resisted dominant stereotyping, and over time contributed to the increasing authority of black Americans to determine their own photographic image.


There is definitely no dispute that Van Der Zee was an exceptionally skilled and socially critical photographer, but this also wouldn’t be JTO Fashion if we completely ignored the lewks being served by these 1920s and 30s subjects. So, here are some of Van Der Zee’s portraits that I especially love:


James Van Der Zee, Couple in Raccoon Coats, 1932


James Van Der Zee, Lady with Fur Jacket, 1935


James Van Der Zee, Black Jews, Harlem, 1929


James Van Der Zee, Lady with Wide-Brimmed Straw Hat, 1934


James Van Der Zee, Whittier Preparatory School, Phoebus, Virginia, 1907

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