Blog / In Search of VanDerZee

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By Sarah Stacke

Today, the Northeast corner of 124th and Lenox doesn’t demand a lot of attention.  The wide sidewalks are lined with staircases that lead to renovated brownstones.  In the fall, orange and red leaves mimic the color of the buildings’ façades.  I visited this particular block in Harlem because the G.G.G. Photo studio, the last studio of photographer James VanDerZee, was here before it closed its doors in 1969.  Walking north on Lenox I searched the numbers nailed to the wooden doors, hunting for 272.  Just before I reached the end of the block, the sight of a decaying sign that read “G.G. Photo Studio” arrested my attention.  Could it really be left from VanDerZee’s studio?  Where was the third “G”?

For more than two decades, James VanDerZee was the most sought-after photographer in Harlem.  He opened his first studio in 1917, fortuitously coinciding with the emergence of the Harlem Renaissance – when Harlem defined itself as an urban community that celebrated a distinctive black culture and fostered independent visions of the black experience.  In the midst of this cultural transformation, VanDerZee secured his position as the preeminent photographer in Harlem by making portraits that reflected his subjects’ self-assertion and self-determination.  His carefully engineered photographs visually constructed blacks’ growing sense of self-empowerment after WWI, and contributed to the racial identity embodied in the idealized culture of the Harlem Renaissance.

A striking example of VanDerZee’s ability to assemble images that communicate ideals is Couple in Raccoon Coats.  In this image, a man and woman pose in front of a wonderfully shiny Cadillac Roadster.  Their matching ankle length raccoon coats are accessorized with stylish hats.  The man, who is sitting inside the car with his hands casually resting in his lap, confidently, yet slightly skeptically, confronts the viewer with his gaze.  The woman is standing outside the car; her hands buried in her pockets.  Her eyes rest on a space outside the frame, and her expression is wistful.  At first glance, this photograph seems an apt description of the roaring twenties.  Yet closer inspection reveals the photograph was made in 1932, a full three years after the start of the Great Depression.

The photograph is on view at the Nasher Museum in the exhibition Becoming: Photographs from the Wedge Collection.

For reasons not entirely clear, VanDerZee’s business abruptly declined after WWII.  It wasn’t until the controversial exhibition Harlem on my Mind opened its doors in 1969 that VanDerZee’s images gained widespread fame.  The exhibition revived VanDerZee’s portrait business, and until his death in 1983, he was commissioned to photograph celebrities including Bill Cosby, Muhammad Ali and Jean-Michel Basquiat.  More importantly, VanDerZee was able to witness the inclusion of his work in the history of photography.

As I gazed at the deteriorating letters of the painted G.G. Photo studio sign, I imagined VanDerZee sitting in front his studio.  Even though the third “G” didn’t survive the passage of time, VanDerZee’s contribution to photography and to the celebration of black culture certainly will.

IMAGE: James VanDerZee, Couple in Raccoon Coats, 1932. Gelatin silver print. 8 x 10 inches. Image courtesy of Donna Musssenden VanDerZee. Dr. Kenneth Montague/ The Wedge Collection.

Sarah Stacke grew up in Edina, MN, and is now based in Brooklyn, New York, and Durham, North Carolina.  She began her career as an assistant to Burt Glinn of Magnum Photos.   Since her time with Glinn, Sarah’s career has expanded to include a variety of independent projects and freelance work.   This summer, Sarah traveled to Cape Town to investigate the relationship between photojournalism and South African nationalism.

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