In the 1920s, James VanDerZee was Harlem's official portraitist. By 1980, he was the most revered black photographer in America. Mark Sealy tells his life story
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The Independent Culture
IN MANY respects, James VanDerZee, black America's greatest photographer, was fortunate in his origins. Born in Lenox, Massachusetts, in 1886, he grew up in an environment that encouraged his artistic and intellectual development. His parents, John and Susan VanDerZee, were economically independent, employed by wealthy white families who owned houses around Lenox (for a time they worked as maid and butler for Ulysses S. Grant). And although bigotry and racial prejudice unquestionably existed in turn-of-the-century New England, they do not seem to have played much part in James's childhood.

He played both the violin and the piano and showed an early interest in pictures. He was surrounded by photographs of his extended family, and often supplied illustrations and other art works for his school. He obtained his first camera at 13, after answering a magazine advertisement promising one in return for selling 20 packets of perfumed sachet powder. This camera failed to live up to his expectations, but, undeterred, he saved what little money he could earn waiting at tables in a local boarding house during the holidays, and bought a better one from a mail order company.

Like many photographers, VanDerZee made his first studies of what was around him. His family and friends were the main focus of his work, which he was now financing by working as a waiter full-time. (His father, being a respected career waiter, often provided the references.) Then, in 1905, he followed his father to New York and found work as a photographic assistant in a department store, in Newark, New Jersey. Before long he was more in demand than the photographer he was working for.

He opened his first studio in Harlem in 1906 and soon developed a reputation among the residents as somebody who could produce sympathetic and flattering portraits. This was because he was consciously breaking the formal conventions and styles of the time. His pictures were informed by the romantic aesthetics of painting, and as his client base grew so did his confidence and his desire to experiment with backdrops and multiple exposures - techniques which both proved very popular.

One of his major objectives was to photograph black people in a positive light. Historically, photographic representations of black people have tended to focus on the black subject as aggressor, as exotic "other", or as victim of self-imposed tragedy. What makes VanDerZee's work so invigorating is the way it explodes the myth of a non-existent black middle-class in the early part of this century. As Val Wilmer has pointed out, writing in Ten Eight magazine: "VanDerZee had no part in recording squalor. Whether taking pictures at Madam Walker's salon or recording returning First World War veterans proudly displaying their medals, he was concerned with enhancing the quality of life for his subjects, not reminding them of injustice. His sitters came to have their portraits taken, and if life had put a few creases here and there, his retouching knife was there to smooth it away."

What is important about VanDerZee's photographs in Harlem is that they give us the opportunity to re- evaluate what it meant to be an African-American in New York in the first half of the 20th century. Even today, photographs of black Americans tend to present images of poverty and helplessness, of people locked into a dependency culture. VanDerZee, by contrast, focused on success and aspiration in black Harlem. But he did more than that. He produced a range of works which attempted to portray the emotions and sensibilities of his sitters, including some ethereal photographic montages that are a powerful testament to memory and loss. His "mortuary portraits", produced in funeral parlours, are among the best examples of the way his photographs tackled difficult emotional terrain. VanDerZee's studio became a theatre in which the full range of black experiences were played out.

His work provides a unique insight into Harlem from a photographer who was not working towards a definitive, voyeuristic, social statement. VanDerZee worked from the inside, relying on commissions from Harlem residents for his survival. He didn't merely photograph the "Harlem Renaissance", the surge of artistic and intellectual creativity that began with the end of the First World War and ended with the Stock Market Crash of 1929. He was an important part of it.

In 1924, Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association commissioned VanDerZee to document many of its activities. Roger C. Birt, Associate Professor of Humanities at San Francisco State University, writes that "Garvey wanted to blanket the black media with images of a vibrant and active UNIA under his own careful stewardship. He hired VanDerZee . . . [who] proved himself to be as good a reporter as he was an imaginative artist." Both VanDerZee and Marcus Garvey were well aware of the politics of representation of the time.

Although the UNIA took him out on the streets, it was on his studio portraits that VanDerZee invested his greatest skills. According to the African- American historian Deborah Willis-Braithwaite, his relatively comfortable background had given VanDerZee "a strong, autonomous sense of self" which he was able to transfer on to his subjects, particularly when they entered the carefully constructed world of his studio.

The high street photographic studio is a special place in any community. It is a place where the subject comes to the camera rather than gets discovered by it. It is a place of equal exchange between sitter and photographer within a set environment. The sitter opens the dialogue; the photographer (especially VanDerZee, who had received training in the visual arts) responds by trying to produce a piece of work that his subject can both feel proud of and project his or her own fantasies on to. VanDerZee excelled in producing images in his studio that his constituency identified with, or wished to be recognised within. Most studio portraits are intended as a legacy, and he enabled his sitters to be remembered in the best possible light. His portraits show how a community wanted to be active in producing representations of themselves for themselves.

Much of his early success was due to the First World War. He took portraits of soldiers to give to their families and sweethearts, which were followed by commissions from families and sweethearts to send to their men. Like that of many other Harlem artists, his work blossomed during the Twenties, when he was the favourite portrait photographer of well-to-do Harlem residents, and even after the Depression took hold, VanDerZee experienced little loss of custom. But during the Forties, Fifties and early Sixties he turned increasingly to photo-restoration, which he had taught himself, in order to supplement his income. By 1967, when he was discovered by Reginald McGhee, a young photographer researching the history of Harlem for an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, VanDerZee and his second wife, Gaynella, were in serious straits. The exhibition, and the subsequent establishment of a VanDerZee Institute, provided them with a spasmodic but, in the end, adequate income. And as his work was discovered by new generations of African-Americans, he enjoyed his own personal renaissance. Even in the later years of his life, black intellectuals, celebrities and the nouveau riche still commissioned him to take their portraits. His more celebrated clients included Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight boxing champion; Madame C. J. Walker, the first African-American woman to become a millionaire; Bill Cosby, the comedian, actor and producer; and the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat.

After Gaynella's death, VanDerZee married for a third time, in 1977, at the age of 91. He died in 1983. The tragedy is that recognition from the international photographic communities came to him so late in life - a situation which, according to Val Wilmer, is all too familiar. "The fact remains that in the photo- graphy world, as elsewhere, the work of black photographers continues to be scandalously neglected in favour of exotic images and cultural caricatures produced by whites."

! Mark Sealy is Director of Autograph, the Association of Black Photographers. An exhibition of James VanDerZee's photographs is at the Zelda Cheatle Gallery, 8 Cecil Court, WC1 until 21 April, and will then tour to the Brighton University Gallery in May, and the Impressions Gallery, York, in the autumn