22 min. 1978. Film Makers Library.
This is a touching portrait of one of the first and foremost photographers of black American life, who set up shop in Harlem at the beginning of the century and spent the next sixty years taking pictures there. His work is now recognized for its artistic and historic value, representing a fascinating record of the public and private life of the black community. Mr. Van De rZee, a man who loved deeply and experienced both joy and sorrow in his life, brings to his reminiscences the wisdom of a ripe old age.
The famous portrait, "Couples, Harlem", captures the pride of Black Americans achieving success during the Harlem Renaissance despite systemic injustice. Journalist and musician Celeste Headlee hears the sounds of Harlem in this photograph: car horns, people calling to one another from the steps of their brownstones, kids on their way home.
In the summer of 1924, as a departure from his concentration on portraits in his Harlem studio, James Van Der Zee served as the official photographer for the Pan-Africanist leader Marcus Garvey and his organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Many of the resulting photographs were published in the organization's popular, internationally distributed newspaper, the Negro World. The newsprint medium in which the UNIA photographs appeared in reproduction, along with their editorial arrangement on the page, animated a different photographic vision from that of the gelatin silver print studio portraits often celebrated as Van Der Zee's defining contribution to American art.
This article illustrates how Van Der Zee's first mass-produced images and their global circulation expanded the possibilities of the role of photography. During the New Negro era, the transformation of Van Der Zee's photographs into newsprint became central to their significance.
European Journal of American Culture, 2017, Vol.36 (2), p.121-135
Despite his self-confessed distance from many of the cultural movements of the time, this article argues that much of VanDerZee's approach was consistent with elements of New Negro philosophy and ideology, particularly that articulated by W. E. B. DuBois. That ideology viewed, as Henry Louis Gates Jr observes, the public self as something to be fashioned and shaped.