JAMES VAN DER ZEE
A Closer Look
James Van Der Zee once said, "I tried to pose each person in such a way as to tell a story." In the studio he used elaborate backdrops and scenery but in this photograph the studio is the street and a shiny Cadillac provides the scenery. The man is partially hidden inside the car but we can tell he is wrapped in a fur coat like the woman's. The year is 1932, during the Great Depression. What story does this couple tell us?
About the Media
This photo was taken on West 127th Street in Harlem, a historic black neighborhood in New York City. The Cadillac takes up much of the foreground of the picture along with a well-dressed man and woman and elegant brownstones fill in the background. Writing about Van Der Zee's portraits, Reginald McGhee of the Metropolitan Museum said, "You will not see the common images of black Americans — downtrodden rural or urban citizens. Instead, you will see a people of great pride and fascinating beauty".
About the Artist
As a boy James Van Der Zee took hundreds of pictures of his family and friends. In 1906 he moved to Harlem, where he opened his first photography studio. For many years Van Der Zee took portraits of Harlem residents, creating a unique visual record of middle class black life. In 1967 the Metropolitan Museum of Art discovered Van Der Zee's work and displayed many of his photos in its 1969 "Harlem on My Mind" exhibit.
Write About It
- Make a list of what you see in the photograph.
- How does the photographer use the elements and principles of design?
- What is your opinion of the photograph? How does it make you feel?