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James VanDerZee (1886-1983)

1 of 4

Untitled, c.1926
vintage gelatin silver print
5” x 7.25” sheet size/4.5" x 6.75" sight size
studio stamp

Portrait of Girl with Fancy Dress, 1938
vintage gelatin silver print
7” x 6” sheet size/6.25" x 4.25" sight size, signed and dated


Liggett's Drugstore Window with VanDerZee Photo Display, c.1940
vintage gelatin silver print
8" x 10"

Classroom #2, St. Marks School, NYC, 1941
vintage gelatin silver print
8” x 10” sheet size/ 7.5" x 9.25" sight size
signed and dated



New & Noteworthy

The New York Times, October 25, 2002

by Grace Glueck

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The New Yorker, September 16, 2002

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Prints & Publications

Artist Information

James VanDerZee is regarded as one of the foremost American photographers of the twentieth century and a master of the medium. Born and raised among a large extended family in Lenox, Massachusetts, VanDerZee obtained his first camera as a teenager and taught himself to take and develop photographs using family and friends as subjects. In 1905, he moved to New York and worked odd jobs for several years before becoming a darkroom assistant to a photographer in a Newark department store. VanDerZee quickly advanced from the darkroom to the portrait studio, and in 1911, his sister Jennie invited him to open a photography studio as an adjunct to the Toussaint Conservatory of Art and Music, which she operated out of her brownstone on 125th Street. In 1916, VanDerZee opened his own studio located at 109 125th Street, called the Guarantee Photo Studio (incorporated as the G.G.G. Photo Studio in 1928), and rapidly established himself as Harlem’s preeminent photographer. Over the years, VanDerZee photographed countless African-American celebrities and successful middle-class families. He took great care in staging his portraits, using ornate furniture, props, and painted backdrops (many of his own design), and posing each sitter “…in such a way that the picture would tell a story.” His

signature style of portraiture often included retouching the final image with oils and transparent watercolors and/or the use of photomontage. In addition to his work in the portrait studio, VanDerZee served as the official photographer to Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Associate (UNIA) and he photographed myriad buildings, church functions, parades, and funerals, capturing the excitement and idealism of the Harlem Renaissance and providing a valuable visual record of twentieth century Harlem. Although his work was well-known within the Harlem community for decades, his photographs reached a wider audience in 1969, when his work was included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s controversial exhibition, Harlem on My Mind. VanDerZee continued to take portraits and photograph Harlem until he died of a heart attack in 1983. Since then, his work has been the subject of numerous exhibitions and scholarship, most notably, a retrospective organized by the National Portrait Gallery in 1993 and the establishment of the James VanDerZee Photographic Collections at The Studio Museum in Harlem. His photographs are included in prestigious museum collections including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, The Smithsonian American Art Museum, and The Whitney Museum of American Art.


Amon-Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX
The Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, VA
Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, Norman, OK
J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center, Los Angeles, CA
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA
International Center of Photography, New York, NY
Lenox Public Library, Lenox, MA
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, FL
Prairie View A&M University, Houston, TX
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York, NY
Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden, Lincoln, NE
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY
Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Richmond, VA
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY