James Van Der Zee: Studio @Howard Greenberg

JTF (just the facts): A total of 55 black and white photographs, variously framed and matted, and hung against light grey walls in the main gallery space and the book alcove. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, some with hand coloring, made between c1920 and 1959. Physical sizes range from roughly 5×3 to 10×8 inches (or reverse), and no edition information was provided. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Some exhibits seem to come along at exactly the right time. With interest in the work of African-American photographers broadening and gaining momentum, we are seeing both well-deserved (and overdue) consolidation around the successes of the older generation as well as freshness and risk taking by those coming along next. Ingrained in that collective accomplishment is the sense of participation, support, and community among its members, and so it is altogether fitting that the early work of James Van Der Zee should come back around to educate and inspire another wave of image makers.

Van Der Zee set up his Guarantee Photo Studio in Harlem in 1918, and quickly established himself as the leading photographer in the changing neighborhood. He would go on to make portraits in the local community for more than four decades (and come out of retirement late in his life to make a few more), in particular documenting the major figures and everyday people of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s from the inside.

What immediately stands out about Van Der Zee’s studio portraits is the radiant confidence of his sitters. Posing for a portrait, by its very nature, often leads to stilted and awkward discomfort, but very few of Van Der Zee’s subjects exhibit this kind of unease (except perhaps a few of the timid newlyweds). Most exude a quiet but contagious energy, their expressions seeming authentic and at ease, full of the optimism of life at that moment. The photographs seem to bottle an elixir of grandeur, where even the most humble of sitters has the confidence to be his or her best self. The smiles in these pictures, and there are many, feel both genuine and warmly buoyant.

While many early studio photographers used simple backdrops to frame their sitters, Van Der Zee was a liberal user of painted scenery and props to complement and enliven his compositions. River view landscapes created the appearance of strolling in the park, while trompe l’oeil walls, curtains, brickwork, and decor offered the approximation of lavish interiors. Van Der Zee then added musical instruments (mostly pianos and violins), telephones, floral bouquets, and all kinds of dogs and cats (both live and as paper cutouts) to the scenes, giving his sitters something to respond to or hold. When matched with their formal attire – and most of his portraits document people in tuxedos, fancy dresses, long coats, military uniforms, christening gowns, and other special occasion wear – the compositions sparkle with lively vibrancy. He then went further to hand color many of his portraits, adding a splash of pink, red, or yellow to flowers, a rosy glow to up-close faces, or the essence of the ropes of a boxing ring to his fighters. That a few women felt comfortable enough to pose nude or in gauzy slips speaks volumes about both the inherent trust Van Der Zee had with his subjects and the confident glamour of the age.

Van Der Zee is best known as a studio portraitist, but this show also offers a selection of his street views of Harlem from the same period. In observing his surroundings, he documented parades (both celebrations and funerals), made large group portraits, and shot squared off images of storefronts (mostly restaurants and delis). There’s even one snowy image of his own photo studio on 7th Avenue. While these images don’t shout Van Der Zee in terms of style, they place his artistic practice in a very specific location, and the images tells us he was certainly aware of the nuances and rhythms of the environment in which he was working.

It’s easy to look at old studio portraits and have a nostalgic days-gone-by reaction to them. But the best of Van Der Zee’s portraits have a surprising degree of timelessness – it’s as if the lady with rose, the soldier, the dapper couple out for a stroll, or the woman with two corsages could step right out the frame and into our presence, their engaging dynamism and verve crossing the distances of time and space. Not only did Van Der Zee consistently make portraits that matched the dignity and grace of his sitters, his photographs seem to catch the breeze of their hopeful effervescent spirit.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show range in price from $4000 to $12000. Van Der Zee’s works have only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past decade. Recent prices have ranged from roughly $3000 to $25000.

James Van Der Zee, Howard Greenberg Gallery

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