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Art Review: Exhibition honors long career of African-American photographer

Thursday, December 02, 1999

By Bill Wade, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

James VanDerZee was a photographic artist who toiled in relative obscurity for years before being discovered. I say "discovered" because one of the beauties of the history of photography is that it is being rewritten all the time.

Silver Eye Center for Photography has brought together more than 60 photographs for an exhibition, "The Photographs of James VanDerZee," through Feb. 26, which was guest-curated by Margery King, associate curator for the Andy Warhol Museum. The exhibition is wonderful in that two-thirds of the photographs are vintage prints while the rest are contemporary prints. This is important, as the older, original prints are imperative to truly understand the spirit of the work.

VanDerZee, an African-American born in 1886, is best known for his compelling portraiture and other documentation of the period between the two World Wars, a time known as the Harlem Renaissance. He died in 1983, after a long career as a commercial photographer.

This simple description falls short, however, as the care with which he did his work elevated it to an art form, while at the same time it defined a people in the process of transition. He created studio and location portraits of Harlem's well-to-do and middle class, which included politicians, religious leaders and community groups. He was there for their weddings and even their funerals. His mortuary portraits would later be gathered in a now hard-to-find 1978 publication, "The Harlem Book of the Dead."

In the Silver Eye exhibition, a good example of this is "The Funeral of Blanche Powell," 1926, which illustrates how he sometimes double-printed a portrait of the deceased so he or she was floating and watching over the funeral service. VanDerZee was revolutionary in his art: These montage photographs and altered photographs use many techniques that even today are considered quite modern. For instance, the seemingly misplaced newspaper on the floor of "Thinking of You," 1927, is a prop used to domesticate the scene. Another contemporary look appears in "Call of the Wild," 1926, which looks like a torn print with a rough white edge. It appears this was printed with a mask of some type held over the paper during the darkroom exposure.

His portraits have a romanticized feel, accentuated by retouching to create an idealized portrait of the sitter. Still, within this framework there is a compelling openness to the portraits, which can be seen in "Gypsy Woman," c. 1925, in which the subject looks directly into the camera's and therefore the photographer's eye, saying "this is me." VanDerZee, who was part of the Harlem community for more than 60 years, captured a dignity that could only be revealed where all pretense is taken down.

He was a gentle man, born into a close-knit family. His parents worked as a butler and maid for former president Ulysses S. Grant before relocating to Lenox, Mass. He met his first wife, Kate, in New York City and had a child, Rachel. This marriage did not last, and with his second wife, Gaynella, he started the Guarantee Photo Studio in 1917 in Harlem.

The studio location changed, but his work continued, with VanDerZee firmly establishing himself as Harlem's pre-eminent studio photographer. He recorded such people as Langston Hughes, Adam Clayton Powell Sr., Mamie Smith and Marcus Garvey. In his 90s, he even photographed a new series of portraits of important African-Americans including Bill Cosby, musician Eubie Blake and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

One of the most famous photographs in the exhibition, "Couple in Raccoon Coats," 1932, along with the rest of his documentation of African-American life, might never have been seen by most of the world if not for a controversial 1969 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition, "Harlem on My Mind." The rediscovery of VanDerZee (who had the most pieces in the exhibition) happened even though his work was planned to just show African-American life in New York.

One thing VanDerZee really was not was a social or "concerned" photographer. That was left for other great African-American photographers such as Gordon Parks (who was a staff photographer at Life magazine, along with being a poet, composer and film director). VanDerZee did not document his surroundings in a way to show bad conditions or troubled times.

There is a difference in looking at VanDerZee's work and the photography of Pittsburgh's own Charles "Teenie" Harris. Harris, who died in 1997 at age 89, was also a studio and commercial photographer but primarily worked as a newspaper photographer at the Pittsburgh Courier from 1936 to 1975. This gave Harris' work a more candid and "life in the streets" look.

Curator King met with Donna Mussenden VanDerZee, the photographer's third and last wife, to select from hundreds of images spanning 80 years. King says some photographs in this exhibit have never been published or exhibited before. Spirit and history are artfully brought together in the magnificent work of VanDerZee in this exhibition, which inaugurates the newly renovated and expanded galleries of Silver Eye Center for Photography.

A series of lectures, a panel discussion and teen docent tours are planned at the galleries at 1015 E. Carson St., South Side. Margery King will discuss "The Photographs of James VanDerZee" at 7:30 p.m. next Thursday. Admission for Silver Eye members is $5; students, $6; and non-members, $7. Reservations are required; for information call 412-431-1810.

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