James Van Der Zee was a prolific photographer documenting Harlem in the 1920’s and 1930’s with work that earned him the unofficial title of “Photographer of the Harlem Renaissance.” With a mission to highlight middle class life, his work featured portraits of black New Yorkers, showing a side of life that was virtually invisible outside the African American community. He was very deliberate in creating a clear, consistent narrative of success and wealth in his portraits. Van Der Zee opened his first photography studio with his first wife in 1916 and he saw commercial success doing elaborate portrait work through the early 1940’s.
What is amazing about his career was that he was relatively unknown in critical photography circles, but that changed in 1969 when at the age of 83 his work was featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s controversial”Harlem on My Mind” exhibition. His critical success dovetailed with his unfortunate commercial decline as economic challenges forced him to lose control over much of his work. He saw a resurgence in his career in the late 1970’s when a renewed interest in commissioned portrait work found a home with publishers.
This portrait of a 21 year old Jean Michel Basquiat was shot by Van Der Zee when he was 95 years old. His work is a testament to his love for his art, his dedication to his craft, an allegiance to his mission and pride in his purpose.
The “Artist a Day Challenge” celebrates Black History Month by highlighting Black artists and diverse forms of cultural expression across the African diaspora.
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