Wednesday, February 5, 2014

James Van Der Zee photos and the portrait I drew from them

James van der Zee set up his famous photograhy studio in his sister's music conservatory in Harlem in 1911. Just as the Harlem Renaissance was growing into a major movement he was able to capture a slice of life of ordinary middle class families, local figures, celebrities and artists with a disarming warmth and insider's perspective (Van Der Zee himself was a musician and father as well, and long-time Harlem resident). Here is a portrait I drew based on one of his family photographs:
Ciana Pullen, Anonymous Man drawn from a photo by James Van Der Zee
Ciana Pullen, Anonymous Man drawn from a photo by James Van Der Zee, charcoal on paper. [Image description: Realistic black and white sketch of the head and shoulders of a young Black man wearing a formal early 20th century military coat, leather sash, and medal chains. He is centered on a white background and diffuse light enters from the left. The marks making up the dark coat dissolve toward the bottom right of the image.]

James Van Der Zee, Garveyite Family, Harlem, 1924.
James Van Der Zee, Garveyite Family, Harlem, 1924. This is the image I used to draw the man above. [Image description: 1920s black and white studio photo of a middle aged Black woman sitting in a formal dress and pearls, a young Black man in a military uniform standing on the left with his hand on her shoulder, and a young boy, maybe eight, in a sailor suit, standing to the right. A small dog, possibly a prop, stands at the boy's heels. The backdrop makes them appear to be in a grand house with huge stately windows, a carved archway, and 18th century murals or wallpaper depicting a forested landscape. A real vase sits on a dark shining wooden desk behind them. Each has a serious but pleasant facial expression.]

A "Garveyite" family would have been followers of Marcus Garvey, an enormously influential Black intellectual of the early 20th century who promoted the self-advancement and economic empowerment of Blacks worldwide as well as a return to ancestral lands and culture, such as Pan-Africanism and Black Nationalism. In 1919, shortly before the above photo would have been taken, Garvey's newspaper Negro World was published from New York, mouthpiece of his organization UNIA, which at that point had around two million members. He was a contemporary, and frequent rival, of W. E. B. Du Bois.

Portrait of James Van Der Zee
Portrait of James Van Der Zee. I don't know who took this photograph. [Image description: close-cropped face of an older Black man with short grey hair, large glasses and a suit.]

Portrait of a Band Leader, by James Van Der Zee
Portrait of a Band Leader, by James Van Der Zee. [Image description: A young boyish-looking Black man in a dark suit, light shirt and tie, and pocket square, stands, feet apart, in front of a backdrop holding a conductor's baton horizontally across his thighs, one hand on each end. His face points slightly down, his gaze is up and out of frame to the right. He wears close-cropped waved hair.]

Portrait of a Couple, by James Van Der Zee
Portrait of a couple, by James Van Der Zee. [Image description: full-length black and white studio portrait of a youngish middle aged Black couple in formal winter clothes. The woman stands on the left in a dark cloche hat and dark knee-length coat with a huge fur collar and cuffs that matches her hat and heels. She holds a purse and gloves and holds one foot forward, lifted elegantly. The man stands with his shoulder behind her and to the right in the same position but with his hand on a walking cane. He wears a dark suit and shoes with grey spats, a white shirt and dark necktie, a long dark overcoat, and a light fedora with dark hat-band. They appear to be in front of a background showing a snow-covered tree-lined lane in a park.]

Portrait of a Family, by James Van Der Zee.
Portrait of a Family, by James Van Der Zee. [Image description: Black and white studio photo of a youngish Black woman (I'll call her the mother) and two children, probably two and four, sitting in a group so that their faces form a line from bottom left to top right. The smallest child throws his or her arms around the mother's neck. They all smile placidly. The mother wears a low bun to the side and a plain mid-toned long-sleeved dress; the children wear striped puffy dresses with big collars, and their hair is in tiny short lolly-pop curls.]

Portrait of a Woman by James Van Der Zee, 1929.
Portrait of a woman by James Van Der Zee, 1929. [Image description: Sepia toned studio photo of a youngish Black woman from the knees up in formal 1920s top and skirt with finger waved bob and bangs. She sits at a woman's carved wood writing desk either reading or writing on some papers or a periodical in front of her. A vase of roses sits on the desk beside her. Her free hand reaches up to loosely brush her neck.]

Portrait of a woman by James Van Der Zee.
Portrait of a woman by James Van Der Zee. [Image Description: Black and white full-lenth studio photo of a young Black woman in a formal ruffled flapper dress and finger waved bob, holding flowers and sitting in a formal chair in front of a backdrop.

Van Der Zee was successful throughout the 1910s-40s, but by the 1960s he had become extremely poor as personal cameras became popular and studio portraits were no longer in demand. In the 1970s and 80s, however, various museum and leaders in the arts staged shows of his photographs and his work gained renewed interest. He received a Living Legacy Award form President Jimmy Carter, and he photographed Cicely Tyson, Bill Cosbey, and others, including Jean-Michel Basquiat:

Jean-Michel Basquiat, by James Van Der Zee, 1982.
James Van Der Zee, Jean-Michel Basquiat. 1982. I love that this still looks like the early 20th century studio portraits, and I'm sure it made a clear departure from the slick bright photography popular in the 80s. I'd love to know what the two men thought of each other. [Image: Black and white photo of Basquiat, a young Black man with shortish Medusa-like dreadlocks, sits in a large carved 1850's chair, leaning forward with his face on one hand. A Siamese cat sits on his lap. He slumps and looks out of frame, with his head at the top right and his gaze pointed at the top left of the image. His other elbow sits on the armrest and his hand dangles and fingers brush his leg. He wears a grey checked paint-spattered suit and conveys an overall restless, ethereal and dishevelled appearance.]

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