James VanDerZee was noted for photographing prominent personalities in the most compelling visual way. Some of the key figures he captured at the height of his career were civil rights activist Marcus Garvey, famous poet Countee Cullen and renowned entertainer and dancer Bill Robinson.
According to BlackPast, VanDerZee’s love for photography was nurtured when he got his first camera at the age of 14 following a magazine promotion. He used members of his family and the town of Lenox as his subject and took hundreds of photographs of the moment.
Using his privileged position as one of the first people who had a camera, he captured the early growth of community life in small town New England. At the professional level, he invested his interest in taking indoor portraits and moved to film his patrons at weddings, funerals and families.
During the Harlem Renaissance, VanDerZee rose to national prominence by documenting the lives of middle-class black families in New York City. He was born in Lenox, Massachusetts in 1886. He had a talent for music and looked forward to a professional career as a violinist. In 1906, he headed to New York City to join his father and brother to work as waiters and elevator operators.
He explored his dream as a pianist and professional violinist for a short while and took other roles as a primary creator where he performed as a member of the Harlem Orchestra. He relocated to Newark, New Jersey in 1915 where he got a job as a darkroom assistant and later as a portraitist in a portrait studio.
VanDerZee moved back to New York a year later and settled in Harlem at a time when a number of black migrants and immigrants were moving to the city in search of greener pastures. He operated his photo studio from his sister’s music conservatory. Two years later, he established his portrait studio with his second wife, Gaynella Greenlee, and named it Guarantee Photo Studio in Harlem. This is the period when he became one of the most celebrated photographers in Harlem.
However, his business began witnessing a dip in the early 1930s with the emergence of personal cameras and the economic meltdown of that period. He resorted to taking passport photos, working on photo restorations, and engaging in other miscellaneous photography jobs, a tactic he adopted to sustain himself for over 20 years.
He bounced back to business in 1967 when his work was rediscovered by photographers and photo historians which shot him into the limelight once again. His services were sought by celebrities who in return advertised his work in exhibits across the United States. Academics and film producers took interest in his photos and made them topics in books and documentaries.
VanDerZee passed away in Washington, D.C. on May 15, 1983. The National Portrait Gallery exhibited his work as a posthumous tribute to his skills.