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James Van Der Zee

In case there is someone out there looking forward to become a celebrity, then he or she must be able to remain focused in life by emulating James Van Der Zee. This is a man who defied all odds and today is renowned for his great performance in photographic art. His work revolved around the culture of the Africans Americans. This artist was popular because of the way he captured the lifestyles of the middle class blacks using his camera especially during the Harlem renaissance. One of the most appealing photographs is that of the proud black couple in raccoon coats at the street of Harlem. Van Der Zee remains outstanding in photography despite the fact that he used black and white colors in his portraits. This made his artworks appear original and authentic which enabled the viewer to appreciate the prolific photographic style employed. Moreover, his images help us appreciate the love, culture and beauty of the Blacks in Harlem. The purpose of this research paper is to explore the background of James Van Der Zee and to determine the relevancy of his photographic work.

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Like most of the artists, James was not created a photographer instead he acquired the culture of photography as he grew up. James Van Der Zee was born from a very humbled family of John and Elizabeth Van Der Zee who resided at Lenox, Massachusetts on June 29, 1886.He was the second child in a family of six children. Initially, his parents stayed in New York City working for former President Ulysses S.Grant as butler and maid. However, when they came to Lennox, the parents shifted to baking as their source of livelihood. James and his siblings enjoyed the warmth provided by their parents who were ready to ensure that they grow up as responsible people in the society. James and his brothers attended schools in Lenox before the family opted to go back to settle in Harlem in 1906.At school, James learnt music and art. He was skillful in playing piano and violin. It was during this time that he became a musician when he joined Fletcher Henderson’s band and John Wanamaker Orchestra to earn a living. However, the interest for photography increased in within him when he got his first camera through promotion. He loved photography and this made him to quit music. Fortunately, his dream career was realized when he became a darkroom assistant in Newark in 1915. In 1916 he opened his own studio where he took many indoor portraits of the blacks in Harlem. He became the first noted photographer in Harlem for many years. However, he lost recognition for some time and his photographic art faded away. In 1969 Van Der Zee was back on stage when the Metropolitan Museum Art discovered some of his negatives and mounted them in an exhibition referred to as Harlem on My Mind. As a result, his photographic work was restored and Van Der Zee concentrated on photography again until his death in 1983.

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The establishment of a studio in Harlem enabled Van Der Zee to take African Americans of all social status and occupations. Mostly, he photographed prominent Blacks who afforded to pass through Harlem. It is worth noting that his photography for was done for commercial purpose. He attended weddings, funerals, lodges and clubs where he photographed the individuals who wanted to keep records of their beautiful clothes. In developing the images, he added props and other pictorial touches to make the portraits look presentable. This work earned Van Der Zee a great deal and enabled him to make a living. He expanded his business using the profits he got by opening a GGG studio which was larger than his first studio. He worked closely with his second wife as an assistant and employed various techniques in producing the photographs.

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Codes in Photography

Van Der Zee became a popular artist because of the ability to use technical skills to decorate images. For example, he retouched the negatives and prints show the glamour of perfection in his photographic artwork. He used traditional techniques that enabled him to produce the real portrait of an individual for a special look.


The artist took his time to produce the pictures of the people he captured in his camera. Mostly, he wanted to bring out a specific theme to whoever would have a glance at the portraits. It is noted that he wanted to denote the middle class Black Americans. Therefore, he used symbolic props and costumes to enrich his artwork. He developed the pictures in black and white which was quite traditional and signified the color of the blacks. Furthermore, the costumes and props supplied depended on the occasion where the photo was taken and the class of an individual.

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The images produced by Van Der Zee are realistic because of the double exposure used. The photograph of the couple showing up in Harlem Street is relatively large and anybody can see how the information conveyed by the artist. The images are medium-sized and there is no overlapping all over the portrait. This makes the viewer to clearly visualize the social status of this black couple.

History of the Photographic Work

This photograph was captured and developed after the end of the World War II when the blacks began to enjoy freedom in the United States. They were able to secure well paying jobs in industries which improved their standards of living. Some Blacks also started to live as the Whites lived and owned luxurious goods such as cars. Nevertheless, not all the African Americans had an opportunity to boast of quality education and good employment. Majority languished in absolute poverty. Therefore, the middle class African Americans had all the reasons to be proud of their fortunes to the others.

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Aesthetics in Photographic Work

Van Der Zee has presented this artwork accurately by carefully choosing on the attire worn by the couple. The vehicle also appears classic to actually indicate the status of this middle class African Americans. The clothes and the positioning of the couples in the picture is enough to show an individual that they are rich. Although the color of the portrait is black and white, we are able to see every detail in the background.


The process of becoming successful requires determination and endurance despite the challenges that come on the way. Van Der Zee had a passion for photography and indeed he did not give up. When he got a chance of owning a camera he ventured into photographic industry and gave it his best. He was not only aiming at making profit but also wanted to demonstrate his prowess and the love he had for this art. As a result, he is today remembered for using traditional techniques in developing the portraits of the Blacks who dominated the town of Harlem in the ancient days.

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