Restricted gift of Anstiss and Ronald Krueck in memory of her mother, Florence Pierson Hammond
Photo Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago
The James VanDerZee Studio
CHICAGO • The Art Institute of Chicago • Ongoing
|The James VanDerZee Studio features images taken by VanDerZee between 1916 and 1982. Drawing on loans from a number of sources, including the photographer’s widow, Donna Mussenden VanDerZee, The James VanDerZee Studio shows the scope of the photographer’s talent in a selection of 105 prints.|
VanDerZee offered the first look at the explosion of art and music of Harlem’s Renaissance, but he also captured the quotidian life of Harlem’s rising black middle class as dozens of neighborhood denizens streamed through his studio, Guarantee Photo. The studio was VanDerZee’s primary business, and he reveled in portraying his subjects in the best possible light.
Largely self-taught, James VanDerZee was isolated from photographic contemporaries such as Lewis Hine and Edward Steichen. Largely in isolation, he created such innovative techniques as the photo montage—multiple images in a single picture. He also experimented with flash powder and learned how to judge light conditions without benefit of a light meter. His meticulous darkroom techniques not only flatter his subjects but also add a psychological and ethereal dimension to everyday images.
James VanDerZee was born in 1886 in Lenox, Massachusetts, a summer playground for New England’s elite. His parents were former servants to President Ulysses S. Grant and exposed their six children to music and arts. Young James developed an interest in photography, and when the family moved to Harlem, he set up his first studio in a music conservatory founded by his sister in 1911.
By 1916, VanDerZee had opened Guarantee Photo with his second wife, Gaynella Greenlee. The business flourished during World War I and through the 1920s until the Great Depression hit—as their fortunes turned, the couple then downsized to a less expensive studio in 1932. There also came a surge in the availability of personal cameras so that people began turning away from professional photographers. VanDerZee and his wife struggled in obscurity, as he was forced to take odd jobs and produce passport photos to make ends meet. In 1968, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York mounted an exhibition entitled Harlem on My Mind, which featured six decades of VanDerZee’s work.
At age 82, VanDerZee had finally been discovered. By the time he died in 1983 at the age of 96, his legacy of craftsmanship and artistry formed during a dynamic and turbulent time in American history was set.
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