James Van Der Zee framed photograph collection
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James Van Der Zee framed photograph collection

Descriptive Summary

Repository: Auburn Avenue Research Library
Creator: Van Der Zee, James, 1886-1983
Title: James Van Der Zee framed photograph collection
Dates: 1974
Quantity: 18.0 framed photographs
Abstract:The collection consists of eighteen framed, signed, Van Der Zee photographs from a 1974 portfolio distributed by Graphics International Ltd. The original photographs, taken between 1905-1938, document African American life in Harlem, Van Der Zee's own family (in Lenox, Mass.), and Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association.
Identification: aarl85-002

Biographical/Historical Note

James Augustus Joseph Van DerZee was a photographer, born in Lenox, Massachusetts, the second of six children. He began practicing photography at the age of 10, taking pictures of his family, his classmates, and various residents of Lenox, and developing the pictures at home. He moved to New York City at the age of 18, where he held various jobs, played and taught the piano and violin, and continued to refine his talent for photography.

His entry into professional photography came at a department store portrait studio in Newark, New Jersey, where he gained practical experience in posing and lighting a variety of people. Upon returning to New York, he operated a photography studio in conjunction with his sister's art and music conservatory, and later opened his own studio in Harlem. He became a sought-after photographer, known for his attention to detail, his artistic backdrops, and his ability to photograph people in relaxed, natural-looking poses.

The peak of Van DerZee's popularity coincided with the Harlem Renaissance. He photographed many prominent people, including Joe Louis, Florence Mills, and Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. He was also the official photographer for Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association. His work for Garvey created an enduring visual record of UNIA's parades, rallies, and individual members. The majority of his photos, however, were taken of ordinary people, weddings, funerals, religious congregations, social clubs, civic organizations, barber shops and beauty salons, drugstores, schools, sports clubs, and other elements of the vibrant community life of Harlem in the 1920s and '30s.

Over the years, Van DerZee saved some 75,000 prints and negatives of his work. His fortunes declined after 1935, but he maintained a studio in Harlem, continuing to work in relative obscurity until he was "rediscovered" in 1968. His photographs were the largest individual contribution to the exhibit "Harlem on My Mind" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In his eighties, he finally attained national and worldwide fame.

Scope and Content Note

The Auburn Avenue Research Library has 18 framed photographs by James Van DerZee, purchased in 1985, each taken from a limited edition run of 75. Each print is signed; three of them bear Van DerZee's signature from the negatives. They represent a variety of subjects, and demonstrate some of his favorite techniques, such as multiple-image processing, in which he printed one negative, then printed it again while printing a second negative from a different picture onto it. The second image typically has a faint, transparent appearance, and adds something to the meaning of the picture.

Index Terms

African American photographers--History--20th century.
Black-and-white photographs.
Garvey, Marcus, 1887-1940
Harlem (New York, N.Y.)--Social life and customs--20th century.
Harlem Renaissance.
Lenox (Mass.)--Social life and customs--20th century.
Universal Negro Improvement Association.

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

James Van Der Zee Framed Photograph collection. Archives Division, Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History, Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System.


Purchased by the Auburn Avenue Research Library in 1985.


Restrictions of Access

There are no restrictions on the research use of this collection.

Restrictions on Use

Copyright held by James van Der Zee. Prior permission from the Research Library must be obtained in writing before any portion of this collection can be published or reproduced.

Container List




11Framed photograph: Mrs. Turner, a summer resident of Lenox, Massachusetts (I; 38/75; signed)
2Framed photograph: School children (II; 38/75; signed)
3Framed photograph: from left: James Van DerZee, his brother Walter, his father John, and brother Charles, circa 1909 (III; 38/75; signed)
4Framed photograph: Rachel, his first wife, and their daughter Kate, in Lenox, circa 1909 (IV; 38/75; signed)
5Framed photograph: Van DerZee's cousin, Susan Porter: seated, reading paper, Victorian style dress and setting, circa 1914 (V; 38/75; signed)
6Framed photograph: Woman seated, looking at fireplace, nude; probably done for a calendar (Brown tone; VI; 38/75; Signed-MISSING)
7Framed photograph: (top) UNIA uniformed corp; (bottom) Garvey (front row, fourth from left) in plumed hat/white gloves; associates in caps and gowns on parade stand, 1924 (VII; 38/75; signed on photo: VANDERZEE NYC 1924)



28Framed photograph: Family-mother seated in middle; father standing in UNIA uniform; little boy standing in sailor suit (VIII; 38/75; signed)
9Framed photograph: Woman standing, wearing feather and jeweled hat and dress (IX; 38/75; signed)
10Framed photograph: Man with cane wearing white suit with dark lapel and derby hat, 1929 (X; 38/75; signed on photo: VANDERZEE NYC 1929)
11Framed photograph: Children in bathing clothes (XI; 38/75; signed)
12Framed photograph: Wedding couple. Image of young girl holding a doll (lower left), superimposed through the "multiple-image" technique (XII; 38/75; signed on photo: VANDERZEE NYC)



313Framed photograph: Moorish Zionist Temple of the Moorish Jews, with Rabbi Matthews (fourth from left). Brown tone (XIII; 38/75; signed)
14Framed photograph: Three women at the beach (XIV; 38/75; signed)
15Framed photograph: Two men/one woman in center, seated at table, 1931 (XV; 38/75; signed on photo: VANDERZEE NYC 1931)
16Framed photograph: Harlem couple in raccoon coats, standing/seated at car door, 1932 (XVI; 38/75; signed)
17Framed photograph: Woman standing behind white piano in a house on 122nd Street. The woman worked for the owner of the house; when her employer died, she inherited the house (XVII; 38/75; signed)
18Framed photograph: "Daddy" Grace, 1930s (XVIII; 38/75; signed)