J. Vanessa Lyon on Finding Inspiration in the Photography of James Van Der Zee

J. Vanessa Lyon on Finding Inspiration in the Photography of James Van Der Zee

Some people buy jewelry or pay down student debt with a book advance. Though I love Cartier as much as the next guy and Biden had yet to forgive my loans when I got my check, I bought a photograph instead. Or rather, I was the successful bidder at one of the always-anticipated sales held by Swann, the Manhattan firm whose 1952 auction was the first in America dedicated to the mysterious medium. The lot I badly wanted was a dark, evocative, and unidentified interior of a Harlem brownstone signed and dated in 1931, by James Van Der Zee. I had a feeling the photograph would help me write my next book. For years in my introductory college survey, Toward a Rigorous Art History , I've shown images by this modernist photographer who should be a household name. I've read the reductive and bigoted take on his work in Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida and assigned crucial later correctives by art historians Deborah Willis and Margaret Olin, among others. I've relished thoughtful seminar discussions Van Der Zee's open-casket funeral montages vis-à-vis American spiritualism, Black Lives Matter, and Gothic architecture. I remind students that Van Der Zee—whose pictures were enlisted for graphic murals and reportage—wasn't acknowledged as a fine artist in the Met's notorious Harlem on My Mind exhibition of 1969. I came to think of the photograph as a sort of talisman for my in-progress . All these years later, Van Der Zee—born in 1886 in Lenox, MA not far from the site of Edith Wharton's Beaux Arts villa, The Mount—is still routinely pigeonholed as solely a portraitist or documentarian of Black life. And it's true, from the Jazz Age through the second World War and beyond, nobody portrayed his myriad sitters more resourcefully and attentively than Van Der Zee. Whether or not, as Rembrandt often had, the artist upgraded your outfit with something from the studio trunk, you always looked sumptuously stylish and classily uptown in a Van Der Zee shot. Much of what we know about the look of living in Harlem in the first half of […]

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