The Modern World During and After the World Wars, C. 1914–1960


Who was James van der Zee?

James van der Zee (1886–1983) was an African American photographer who documented the emerging black middle class in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance. He was primarily a portrait photographer and worked in his studio, though he experimented with double exposures and retouching. Van der Zee painted studio backdrops for indoor photo shoots, and even provided props and costumes for his sitters, often commemorating important life events such as weddings or family gatherings. Van der Zee’s work captures the hopes and dreams of black Americans arriving in the city from the rural south and remains one of the most significant records of the Harlem Renaissance. His collected works are now held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.


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