The Met Acquires Archive of Work by Harlem Renaissance Photographer James Van Der Zee

Working with the Studio Museum of Harlem, the museum is preserving the photographer’s images of 20th-century Black life

Photographer James Van Der Zee playing violin
Aside from photography, James Van Der Zee was also a gifted musician who played both the piano and violin. James Van Der Zee Archive / Metropolitan Museum of New York

From a victory parade for Black soldiers returning from World War II to key moments of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, photographer James Van Der Zee captured decades of life in Harlem. Now, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Studio Museum of Harlem have joined forces to create an archive of his work, including about 20,000 prints and 30,000 negatives.

“He is a central figure, a significant artist, in telling the story of people of African descent,” Thelma Golden, director and chief curator at the Studio Museum, tells Arthur Lubow of the New York Times. “The photographs are testaments to beauty and power, and he captured the Harlem community and the African American community in all its possibilities.”

The Met will acquire the majority of the images from Donna Van Der Zee, the photographer’s widow, and the James Van Der Zee Institute, which was created in 1969 to preserve Van Der Zee’s work but has been inactive since the 1980s. The other part of the archive, about 6,000 prints and 7,000 negatives, is already owned by the Studio Museum, which will retain ownership of them. 

The Met will house the archive, and its conservation department will preserve and scan the negatives. The museum acquired the copyright to reproduce the images as part of the deal, and Van Der Zee’s studio equipment and ephemera will also have a place in the archive.

A street parade in Harlem
Van Zer Dee often captured happenings on the streets of Harlem, such as street parades. James Van Der Zee Archive / Metropolitan Museum of New York

“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,” Donna Van Der Zee says in a statement. “The collection has found an ideal permanent home.”

Van Der Zee’s parents worked in domestic service in Ulysses S. Grant’s White House, reports Jasmine Liu for Hyperallergic. He was born in Lenox, Massachusetts in 1886 and learned to play the piano and violin as a child. At 14, he got his first camera and began teaching himself photography. Van Der Zee worked as an elevator operator, waiter and darkroom technician before becoming a professional photographer. 

In the mid-1910s, Van Der Zee and his second wife, Gaynella Greenlee, opened the Guarantee Photo Studio in Harlem. They arrived in the neighborhood as the Harlem Renaissance was hitting its stride, with an influx of Black people from the South arriving as part of the Great Migration.

Over the following years, Van Der Zee became the most successful photographer in Harlem, per the Howard Greenberg Gallery. He captured images of people including the Jamaican-born Black Pan-Africanist leader Marcus Garvey, entertainer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, boxer Muhammad Ali, entertainer Mamie Smith and poet Countee Cullen

Outside the studio, Van Der Zee recorded the neighborhood’s history, from its nightlife and street scenes to its community associations. He took some of the only pictures of the victory parade for the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” after their return from World War I, writes Tom Seymour for the Art Newspaper.

A funerary portrait by Harlem Renaissance photographer James Van Der Zee
Van Der Zee would sometimes superimpose images, like sheet music over this funerary portrait, to create photo montages. James Van Der Zee Archive / Metropolitan Museum of New York

Van Der Zee also photographed significant moments in the lives of Harlem families, such as weddings, first communions and funerals. Some of his work used superimposed images, such as the musical notes from the song “Going Home” over a 1932 funerary portrait. He also hand-tinted some of the photographs.

“He had an extraordinary knowledge of lighting and printing and manipulation and coloring,” Jeff L. Rosenheim, the curator in charge of the Met’s department of photography, tells the Times.

The Studio Museum runs an eight-month photography program for high school students, Expanding the Walls, using Van Der Zee’s images to inspire their work.

“His very particular vision has the power to be inspirational to generations of artists who have seen the possibility of what it means to chronicle in time and place a people and a culture,” Golden tells the Times. “His work inspires them to look at their world with precision and record it in the present.”

A selection of the photographs drawn from the collection is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. through May 30, 2022.