Massive archive of photographer James Van Der Zee’s work lands in two New York museums
Yesterday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem announced that they would jointly own 20,000 prints and 30,000 negatives of James Van Der Zee, a prolific photographer known for his lush portraits of black middle-class city life. during the Harlem Renaissance. The prints and negatives, along with his studio equipment and ephemera, will be held in the James Van Der Zee Archives – the third archive of an American photographer at the Met to date (the other two contain the works of Walker Evans, created in 2000, and Diane Arbus, created in 2007) and one of the largest collections of works by an individual photographer in the world. The archives not only contain Zee’s vast collection of works, but also launch an initiative to conserve and digitize his works, and research the context of his photographs, his singular photographic techniques and his life. This is the first time that the Met will collaborate with a partner institution to “safeguard the legacy of an individual artist”.
Currently, the Studio Museum in Harlem already has around 6,000 prints and 7,000 negatives, and the Met will acquire the remainder – 14,000 prints and 23,000 negatives – from its widow Donna Mussenden Van Der Zee and her institute. The Met will also own the copyright in all images of James Van Der Zee. Efforts to establish the archives were launched by Mussenden Van Der Zee in the summer of 2018.
Van Der Zee was born in Lenox, Massachusetts, a predominantly white town that was a popular summer retreat for wealthy New Englanders. His parents had worked as a maid and butler at Ulysses S. Grant’s White House, and he grew up with musical aspirations: he learned the piano and violin very early in his youth and dreamed of becoming a professional violinist. His expressive inclinations didn’t stop with playing music. At 14, he got his first small case, which he earned by selling sachets of pink and yellow silk powder, and immediately got to work taking hundreds of photos of his family and the city. .
In 1906, at the age of 20, he moved to New York City with his brother, where he worked as an elevator operator and waiter. After spending a year in Newark in 1915 as a darkroom technician and photographer in a portrait studio, he returned to New York and established his first portrait studio. Two years later, together with his second wife, Gaynella Greenlee, he established the Guarantee Photo Studio in Harlem, where he has produced countless portraits over the years. By this time, Harlem was already beginning to rapidly change from the middle-class white neighborhood it was when Van Der Zee first moved to New York – and by the mid-1920s, 200,000 black Americans were living there, a A by-product of The Great Migration stages the demographic backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance artistic, literary, and cultural surge.
Van Der Zee has taken photos of the vibrant people, places and events of Harlem – from weddings and funerals to barber shops and pool halls, from Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to the United Negro Improvement Association to Marcus Garvey. Some of his most famous subjects included Muhammad Ali, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Countee Cullen. His clients showed up in their best clothes and he chatted with them to better capture their likeness. When working in the studio, he relied on a range of glamorous accessories, such as architectural pieces, backgrounds and fashion accessories, perfectly matched with the personality and appearance of his subjects. Sometimes he would have babysitters play characters in a little situational drama: a child on the phone or a gypsy fortune teller giving judgment. “I tried to pose each person in a way that told a story,” he once said.
After posing his subjects and taking their photographs, he frequently retouched and manipulated his negatives. Often times, this involved “sprucing up” her photographs, straightening crooked teeth, smoothing out wrinkles and filling in bald areas. “A woman came to me and said, ‘Mr. Van Der Zee, my friends tell me it’s a nice picture, but it doesn’t look like you.’ It was my style, “he explained. He also uses the technique of photo montage, superimposing the musical score of a song on a funeral portrait and adding a spectral child to a wedding portrait.
It is fitting that the Met should take custody of Van Der Zee’s work, given the central role he once played in bringing a wider audience to his work. Although Van Der Zee was well known by Harlem’s black community to be a handsome portrait painter and a coveted photographer for hire, his work had not captured the attention of a wider audience. In 1967 Reginald McGhee, a consultant working on an upcoming show at the Met, arrived on Van Der Zee’s studio in Harlem and discovered his collection of 75,000 photos taken over six decades. He was conducting photographic research for what would prove to be the notoriously controversial subject. Harlem in my mind exhibition the following year. Van Der Zee had until then been more or less indifferent to seeking recognition from the art world – but the reverse could not be said: when his photographs were presented in the exhibition, he was immediately acclaimed.
But his overnight fame didn’t come fast enough: weeks after the exhibition opened, he was kicked out of his home in Harlem, a house he had lived in for nearly three decades. His business never fully recovered after the Great Depression, and the growing ubiquity of personal cameras reduced the demand for professional photography. By the time of the 1969 show, his wife’s health was in decline and her finances were worse than they had ever been. To protect the large volume of prints and negatives that have now found themselves homeless, McGhee established the James Van Der Zee Institute (which for two years was located at the Met), and under considerable emotional strain, Van Der Zee bequeathed his collection to the institute. “There was so much confusion at the time that I did everything I was asked to do,” he said later. “I didn’t have a lawyer or anyone else to represent me.” In 1978, the institute became part of the Studio Museum.
Later, Van Der Zee’s relationship with McGhee, the Studio Museum, and the Met turned sour. In 1981, at the age of 95, Van Der Zee continued the Studio Museum in order to regain possession of its some 125,000 prints, negatives, plates and transparencies. Van Der Zee said he had lived off public and charitable aid during the years his work was in the collections of their museums, and that the compensation he had received for his collection amounted to “a car , a costume and a turkey ”. “I intended to protect my collection” – which he valued at $ 10 million at the time – “and ensure my financial well-being. I had no intention of transferring my collection permanently, ”he said. “In those 12 years my intentions have been completely frustrated.” More than two years later – and a few weeks after his death – the lawsuit was settled, the estate of Van Der Zee recovering half of its collection and the other half divided between the Studio Museum and its institute.
This collaboration between the Met, the Studio Museum and Donna Mussenden Van Der Zee marks a happier end to the disagreements that marred Van Der Zee’s rise to fame, and gives Van Der Zee’s work the place of honor. ‘he deserves. “The collection has found an ideal permanent home,” says Mussenden Van Der Zee.
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