1969, the Metropolitan Museum of Art made waves with the controversial exhibition, Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968. Instead of paintings and sculpture from the storied hotbed of African American culture and creativity, it featured photographs—at the time a medium not yet embraced by the art establishment—of the neighborhood’s cultural and social life. The immersive installation was like an uptown Family of Man, and it drew record crowds to the museum. And while it incited a picket line of protesters disparaging the show as a culturally patronizing and racist white man’s view of Harlem, it was also unprecedented for its depiction of African American culture on a grand scale. Deborah Willis, author of Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography, recalls seeing Harlem on My Mind as a budding artist and scholar of photography.
“At 21, having never seen images of black people exhibited in a major museum, outside of a natural history museum, I felt great pride in that presentation,” she remembered. “I understood the protestors’ [sic] concerns but fundamentally disagreed with them, and I went back five times to view that groundbreaking show.”
The Met’s introduction to the bastion of black culture some 40 blocks to their north included a collection of portraits made by the Harlem studio photographer James VanDerZee. The small black and white prints were from the 1920s and 1930s—the heyday of Harlem’s growth as a center of black culture and, later, the Great Depression. VanDerZee’s 135th street studio was a magnet for local families at a time when camera technicians like himself were most people’s only opportunity for self imaging. From its opening in 1917, VanDerZee produced thousands of photographs for Harlem’s flourishing middle class—the church groups and social clubs, weddings and funerals, notables and nobodies who made up his thriving community. When the Met’s curators “discovered” VanDerZee at his studio in 1968, they quickly moved to include his work in the show, effectively introducing it to the world outside of Harlem.
VanDerZee was fastidious in his work, always presenting his clients at their best, often using retouching techniques to enhance their likenesses. One of his specialities was postmortem portraiture, which was common for the time, and attempted to provide a final memorial of deceased family members. VanDerZee went further in the darkroom by inserting superimposed angels and floating scripture over his dapperly departed—his nod to his subjects’ interior presence as they passed from one world to the next.
“I wanted to make the camera take what I thought should be there,” the photographer once said.
VanDerZee’s pictures show Harlem blossoming into an incubator for African American arts and culture. But he was first and foremost a professional, and his Harlem is populated by men and women who could afford his services (and who had something worth lionizing in a photograph). He never pictured the poverty of the new Southern immigrants who between 1920 and 1930 brought Harlem’s black population from 30 to 70 percent. But it was in that decade, a period now known as the Harlem Renaissance, that VanDerZee thrived as the rare image maker who saw his community from the inside and without pretense. Who, as professor Willis surmises, “perfectly symbolized, in my mind, the celebration of black life and economic and cultural achievement.”