WEDDINGS, FUNERALS, PARADES, CHRISTMAS SCENES, and all manner of portraits. The photographs of James Van Der Zee (1886-1983) have come to define 20th century Harlem. His powerful pictures capture the beauty and pride of Black life, documenting everyday moments and special celebrations. His subjects were cosmopolitan Black families, artists, and political leaders—Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Marcus Garvey, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Florence Mills, Father Divine, and Muhammad Ali, among countess others.

Active from the 1910s to the early 1980s, he made thousands of images, building a vast collection critical to the study of American photography, the history of New York City, and the culture of Harlem and its Black residents.

 


JAMES VAN DER ZEE (American, 1886-1983), “Three Men Holding Letters,” 1934 (gelatin silver print). | © James Van Der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

The life’s work of Van Der Zee now has a permanent home. In a landmark collaboration, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Studio Museum in Harlem announced the establishment of the James Van Der Zee Archive, comprising more than 20,000 prints (made in his lifetime) and 30,000 negatives, as well as studio equipment and ephemera, which will all be housed at The Met.

The archives of three highly regarded American photographers have now been acquired by The Met. Van Der Zee’s collected works join the catalogs of Walker Evans, which came to the museum in 1994, and Diane Arbus (2007).

“The James Van Der Zee Archive is a stunning repository of photographic practice in Harlem from the first decade of the 20th century to the early 1980s,” Jeff L. Rosenheim, curator in charge of the Department of Photographs at The Met, said in a statement.

“Collectively, the photographs offer a hopeful and beautiful portrait of Black life in America. Reflected in the eyes of Van Der Zee’s sitters, we see their ambitions, and his own; their modernity and his attuned awareness of the psychological language of portraiture; their social connections and his unwavering belief in the power of photography to preserve the depth, breadth, and richness of his own community.”

“Collectively, the photographs offer a hopeful and beautiful portrait of Black life in America. Reflected in the eyes of Van Der Zee’s sitters, we see their ambitions, and his own; their modernity and his attuned awareness of the psychological language of portraiture; their social connections and his unwavering belief in the power of photography to preserve the depth, breadth, and richness of his own community.”
— Met Curator Jeff L. Rosenheim


JAMES VAN DER ZEE (American, 1886-1983), “Self-portrait,” 1931 (gelatin silver print). | © James Van Der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Over the past 40 years, the Studio Museum has partnered with Donna Van Der Zee, the photographer’s widow, serving as custodian of the materials contained in the archive. Van Der Zee is represented in the Studio Museum’s collection by approximately 6,000 prints and 7,000 negatives. The Met acquired some 14,000 prints and 23,000 negatives from Mrs. Van Der Zee and the James Van Der Zee Institute, which has been inactive since the 1980s.

(Rosenheim told the New York Times that The Met paid “a really nice amount of money” for the prints and negatives it acquired, but would not disclose a specific price.)

The Met will serve as copyright holder for all of the Van Der Zee works across all media, and will also conserve, maintain, and store the negatives. While located at The Met, the Studio Museum will retain ownership of its Van Der Zee holdings.

In a statement, Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum said: “This innovative partnership between The Studio Museum in Harlem and The Met at last brings all the complex and varied materials of the James Van Der Zee Archive under one roof, where the technical challenges of conservation and digitization will be expertly managed, and our ongoing work in advancing knowledge of Van Der Zee will be supported and amplified by a great partner. We are extremely pleased to be able to collaborate with Mrs. Van Der Zee and The Met on creating a permanent home for one of the nation’s most important picture makers.”

“We are extremely pleased to be able to collaborate with Mrs. Van Der Zee and The Met on creating a permanent home for one of the nation’s most important picture makers.” — Studio Museum Director Thelma Golden


JAMES VAN DER ZEE, (American, 1886-1983), “Young Woman,” 1935 (gelatin silver print). | © James Van Der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

The archive project was initiated by Mrs. Van Der Zee in the summer 2018. She worked with Golden at the Studio Museum and Rosenheim at The Met to establish a permanent repository for her late husband’s work, along with a commitment to preserve and burnish his legacy for the benefit of generations to come.

At The Met, the full catalog will be conserved, digitized, researched, and made accessible to the public. Curators are particularly interested in engaging with scholars and Harlem residents to identify and learn more about Van Der Zee’s subjects and also gain a better understanding of the technical aspects of his singular work, including his use of light, manipulation of negatives, and hand-tinting, Rosenheim told the Times.

“I am so very pleased for this next chapter of my late husband’s archive. For most of his years, Van lived and worked in New York, and it was The Met that presented the very first exhibition of his photography, introducing him to the wider world. Given this, it is especially fitting that the James Van Der Zee Archive should find its permanent home at The Met and in a way that the Studio Museum is a partner,” Mrs. Van Der Zee said in a statement.

“As the steward of Van’s work for the past 40 years, I feel it is a great honor and responsibility to ensure the collection is placed in a way that guarantees the depth, breadth, and innovative artistry of Van’s photography is appreciated, and the archive receives the care, scholarship, and attention it requires. That The Met’s acquisition will allow the public to witness, learn from, and be moved by the beauty and diversity captured in Van’s photographs gives me tremendous joy. The collection has found an ideal permanent home.” CT

 

FIND MORE While James Van Der Zee’s portraits of Harlem were aesthetically and technically exceptional, and often featured prominent, well-known subjects, at its core, his practice was about chronicling his community, a commitment shared throughout the 20th century by Black photographers in cities across the country, including Teenie Harris (Pittsburgh); Addison Scurlock (Washington, D.C.); Florestine Perrault Collins (New Orleans); John W. Mosley (Philadelphia); and Allen E. Cole (Cleveland, Ohio)

FIND MORE In April, Met curator Allon Schoener died. He organized “Harlem on My Mind” in 1969. The controversial exhibition was criticized for not presenting any paintings, drawings, or sculpture by Black artists. Photographs by James Van Der Zee and Gordon Parks were included, not as artworks, but rather blown up and incorporated into the exhibition design

 


JAMES VAN DER ZEE, (American, 1886-1983), “Funerary Portrait,” 1932 (gelatin silver print). | © James Van Der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 


JAMES VAN DER ZEE, (American, 1886-1983), “Bride and Groom,” 1927 (gelatin silver print). | © James Van Der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 


JAMES VAN DER ZEE, (American, 1886-1983), “Woman Holding Folding Camera,” 1922 (gelatin silver print). | © James Van Der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 


JAMES VAN DER ZEE, (American, 1886-1983), “Advent Mission,” 1936 (gelatin silver print). | © James Van Der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 


JAMES VAN DER ZEE, (American, 1886-1983), “Sailor, U.S. Coast Guard,” 1941-47 (gelatin silver print). | © James Van Der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 


JAMES VAN DER ZEE, (American, 1886-1983), “Couple,” 1930 (gelatin silver print with applied color). | © James Van Der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 


JAMES VAN DER ZEE, (American, 1886-1983), “Parade, Harlem,” 1924-26 (gelatin silver print). | © James Van Der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

RELATED The exhibition “James Van Der Zee’s Photographs: A Portrait of Harlem” is currently on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (Nov. 28, 2021-May 30, 2022)

 

BOOKSHELF
Authored by Deborah Willis, “VanDerZee: Photographer 1886-1983” was published on the occasion of a major exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Several other publications document James Van Der Zee’s work, including “The Harlem Book of the Dead,” which explores Van Der Zee’s funeral images. For children, also consider “Take a Picture of Me, James Van Der Zee!” by Keith Mallett with illustrations by Keith Mallett. “Harlem On My Mind: Cultural Capital Of Black America, 1900-1968” documents the 1969 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

SUPPORT CULTURE TYPE
Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is an independent art history project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for Your Support.