Top Image: “Lady with Fur Jacket”, 1935
Born in 1886 in Lenox, Massachusetts, James Van Der Zee did not seek to be a photographer. With an early gift in music, Van Der Zee was an aspiring violinist. At the age of 14, he was gifted a camera, and the trajectory of his career shifted. As one of the few people in his city with a camera, Van Der Zee became a sought-after young man, documenting the rich lives of Black Americans in his town.
His career took him all over Northeastern America, but he eventually landed in Harlem right as the Harlem Renaissance began. After a career in New Jersey setting up a photo studio, Van Der Zee did the same in Harlem, opening the Guarantee Photo Studio. Van Der Zee took portrait photos of the new middle class and quickly became successful. Some of his more known sitters include black activist Marcus Garvey, black entertainer/ dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and renowned black poet Countee Cullen. The combination of the economic downturn and the favored personal camera stopped Van Der Zee’s portrait business for good. However, later on, his photographs were rediscovered and recognized as one of the few rich documentation of this rich era.