Nov 5, 2007

Emma, Gaynella VanDerZee's sister, with her children

Emma, Gaynella VanDerZee's sister, with her children


James Van Der Zee

(American, 1886-1983)

Gelatin silver print

Image: 24.4 x 19.2 cm (9 5/8 x 7 9/16 in.); Matted: 50.8 x 40.6 cm (20 x 16 in.)

The Jane B. Tripp Charitable Lead Annuity Trust 1999.53



For more than 50 years, James VanDerZee produced images that embody the spirit of Harlem. From the 1920s to the 1940s, he was the neighborhood's most popular and prolific photographer, his camera capturing everyone from ordinary citizens to celebrities. In the studio VanDerZee photographed glamorously dressed young people and dignified men and women. On location, he chronicled picnics, parades, families, church congregations, and the dead in their coffins. These four prints, from a collection of 33 recently acquired by the museum, show VanDerZee's skill at posing and lighting his subjects. His artistic sensibilities are reflected in elaborate backdrops and the use of accessories that reinforced his sitters' associations with culture and wealth. The artist worked with a variety of techniques, including multiple negatives and hand coloring, to make artful photographs that set him apart from his more traditional, less aesthetically inclined competitors. Just as he often signed his name and date directly onto the negative, he would also selectively draw on it-to smooth a complexion and touch up imperfections, or to add extra jewelry or smoke drifting from a cigarette-whatever was necessary to emphasize the grace and dignity of his client, regardless of race, age, or social status.

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