Van Der Zee, James
African-American photographer noted for portraits of Black celebrities and ordinary people of Harlem
Autograph ID: 3637
Condition: Very good
Description: “(1886-1983) African-American photographer, created a photographic history of the people of Harlem, celebrities and ordinary people, in hope and despair, covering 60+ years. His parents had moved to Lenox, Mass. 3 years earlier from NYC, where they had worked as a maid and butler to retired President Grant. When a magazine ad offered a camera as a premium for selling pink & yellow silk sachets to the ladies of Lenox, he ended up with an $8 camera that would launch his career, becoming one of the great American photographers. To NYC after the turn of the century, until he got his 1st professional photography job in a Newark, NJ department store photography concession in 1913, for 20 years he worked 2 jobs. By day he was an elevator operator or waiter; at night, a musician in various bands, including his own and Fletcher Henderson’s. Before the end of WW I VanDer Zee opened his first studio, Guarantee Photo Studio, later changed to GGG Studio, on 138th Street in Harlem. There, in the 1920s & 30s, he photographed Harlem and made it famous. He photographed celebrities as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Countee Cullen, Joe Louis, and Jack Johnson and was the official photographer for Marcus Garvey and his 1920’s “Back to Africa” movement, snapping pictures of his elaborate parades. He also portrayed ordinary African American ceremonial occasions from funerals to weddings with dignity, artistry, and compassion. When home cameras became popular in the 40s, his portrait business dwindled but he continued to photograph brides, celebrities like pianist Hazel Scott, ceremonies of the Moorish Jews, and the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity basketball team. But it was only in 1969, when he was past 80, that he received recognition outside of Harlem, and he was catapulted into national prominence. In 1968, at the height of the American Black Consciousness Movement, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art decided to mount an exhibition “Harlem on My Mind.” VanDer Zee gave free access to 100,000+ photographs he had signed & dated. Providing 90 % of the visual material for the exhibition, he received only $3, 700 from the museum for the use of his work. In part because photography was becoming recognized as a fine art and gaining collectors of vintage photographs, he quickly became a cult figure. But at about the same time, he and his wife were evicted from their home and studio of 29 years, forced to put most of their possessions in storage, go on welfare, and move to a Bronx hotel. 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 Metropolitan Museum Fellow for Life. In 1976 his wife died, and he disappeared even further from the public limelight. In 1975 he met 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. After his wife’s death, she cleaned up his home, organized his files, and visited him regularly. VanDer Zee married her in 1978and he resumed his career after a 12-year hiatus, photographing celebrities Bill Cosby, Muhammad Ali, and others. He successfully obtained 75% of his photographs, ¼ becoming property of the James VanDer Zee Foundation. He traveled across the country with a wheelchair, gave lectures, had exhibitions, and made public appearances. His “The Harlem Book of the Dead” publ. 1978, and a young people’s biography, “James VanDer Zee, the Picture Takin’ Man, ” came out in 1979. He received 6 honorary doctorates and was honored by President Jimmy Carter.
Rare signature on message side (verso) of 4 x 5 ¾ b&w postcard of Van Der Zee’s 1928 photograph “Children-Dance Class”. Postcard issued by International Center of Photography from its November 1978-Jan. 1979 NYC exhibit “Fleeting Gestures: Treasures of Dance Photography”.”