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James VanDerZee: Harlem Guaranteed

September 12 – November 2, 2002

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The New York Times, October 25, 2002

by Grace Glueck

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The New Yorker, September 16, 2002

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Press Release

Michael Rosenfeld Gallery is proud to present its first solo exhibition featuring the work of James VanDerZee (American, 1886-1983). Harlem Guaranteed includes thirty, rare, vintage gelatin silver prints, dating from 1907 to 1954, including studio portraits with sitters of all ages, and photographs of Harlem’s architectural landmarks, parades, funerals and social clubs. By capturing the people and places of his neighborhood – New York’s famed 125th Street - for over forty years, the photography of James VanDerZee has preserved for future generations an important aspect of Harlem’s cultural legacy and a vibrant moment in American history.

James VanDerZee is regarded as one of the foremost American photographers of the twentieth century and a master of the medium. Born and raised 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 for decades within the Harlem community, 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.

This exhibition is accompanied by a fully-illustrated color catalogue with essays by Hilton Als and Dr. Cheryl Finley.

To learn more about James VanDerZee, please visit the Artists & Estates section of our website.