The Met Acquires Archives of the Work of Harlem Renaissance Photographer James Van Der Zee | Smart News

Besides photography, James Van Der Zee was also a gifted musician who played both piano and violin.
James Van Der Zee Archives / Metropolitan Museum of New York

From a victory parade of black soldiers returning from WWII to key moments in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, photographer James Van Der Zee has captured decades of life in Harlem. Now the Metropolitan Art Museum and the Workshop museum of Harlem have joined forces to create an archive of his work, comprising approximately 20,000 prints and 30,000 negatives.

“He is a central figure, an important artist, in telling the story of people of African descent”, Thelma Doré, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum, tells Arthur Lubow New York Times. “The photographs are a testament to beauty and power, and it has captured the Harlem community and the African American community in all of its possibilities.”

The Met will acquire the majority of the images of Donna Van Der Zee, the widow of the photographer, and of the James Van Der Zee Institute, created in 1969 to preserve the work of Van Der Zee but inactive since the 1980s. The other part of the archives , approximately 6,000 prints and 7,000 negatives, already belongs to the Studio Museum, which will retain ownership.

The Met will house the archives and its preservation department will store and digitize the negatives. The museum has acquired the copyright to reproduce the images as part of the deal, and Van Der Zee’s studio equipment and ephemera will also have a place in the archives.

A street parade in Harlem

Van Zer Dee often captured events on the streets of Harlem, such as street parades.

James Van Der Zee Archives / Metropolitan Museum of New York

“It gives me immense joy that the Met’s acquisition enables the public to witness, learn and be moved by the beauty and diversity captured in Van’s photographs,” said Donna Van Der Zee in a declaration. “The collection has found an ideal permanent home.

Van Der Zee’s parents worked as servants at Ulysses S. Grant’s White House, Jasmine Liu reports for Hyperallergic. He was born in Lenox, Massachusetts in 1886 and learned to play the piano and violin as a child. At 14, he got his first camera and began to learn about photography. Van Der Zee worked as an elevator operator, waiter and darkroom technician before becoming a professional photographer.

In the mid-1910s, Van Der Zee and his second wife, Gaynella Greenlee, opened the Guarantee Photo Studio in Harlem. They arrived in the neighborhood as the the rebirth of Harlem was in full swing, with an influx of blacks from the South arriving as part of the Great migration.

In the following years, Van Der Zee became Harlem’s most successful photographer, according to the Howard Greenberg Gallery. He captured images of people including the Jamaican-born black Pan-Africanist leader Marcus Garvey, artist Bill “Bojangles” Robinsonboxer Mohamed Ali, artist Granny Smith and poet Earl Cullen.

Outside the studio, Van Der Zee recorded the history of the neighborhood, its nightlife and street scenes at its community associations. He took some of the only photos of the victory parade of the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” after their return from World War I, writes Tom Seymour for the Art journal.

A funeral portrait of Harlem Renaissance photographer James Van Der Zee

Van Der Zee sometimes superimposed images, like musical scores on this funeral portrait, to create photo montages.

James Van Der Zee Archives / Metropolitan Museum of New York

Van Der Zee also photographed important moments in the life of Harlem families, such as weddings, first communions and funerals. Some of his work uses layered images, such as the musical notes from the song “Going Home” on a 1932 funeral portrait. He has also hand-tinted some of the photographs.

“He had extraordinary knowledge of lighting, printing, handling and coloring”, Jeff L. Rosenheim, the curator in charge of the Met’s photography department, tells the Time.

The Studio Museum runs an eight-month photography program for high school students, Enlarge the walls, using Van Der Zee’s images to inspire their work.

“His very special vision has the power to inspire generations of artists who have seen the possibility of what it means to chronicle time and situate a people and a culture,” Golden told the Time. “Her work inspires them to look at their world with precision and record it in the present.”

A selection of photographs from the collection is on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC until May 30, 2022.

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