James Augustus Joseph VanDerZee

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James Augustus Joseph VanDerZee

Also Known As: "James Van DerZee"
Birthdate: (96)
Birthplace: Lenox, Berkshire, MA, USA
Death: May 15, 1983 (96)
Washington, DC, USA
Immediate Family:

Son of John J. Van Der Zee and Susan Elizabeth Van Der Zee
Husband of Gaynella VanDerZee and UFN VanDerZee
Ex-husband of Kate L. VanDerZee
Brother of Jane VanDerZee; Jane Louise VanDerZee; Mary E. VanDerZee; Charles F. VanDerZee and Walter P. VanDerZee

Occupation: African American photographer
Managed by: Kenneth Kwame Welsh, (C)
Last Updated:

About James Augustus Joseph VanDerZee


James Van Der Zee (June 29, 1886 - May 15, 1983) was an African American photographer best known for his portraits of black New Yorkers. He was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Aside from the artistic merits of his work, Van Der Zee produced the most comprehensive documentation of the period. Among his most famous subjects during this time were Marcus Garvey, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Countee Cullen.


James Van Der Zee was born in Lenox, Massachusetts. His parents were John and Elizabeth Van Der Zee. His parents worked for President Ulysses S. Grant in New York City. James was the second of six children and enjoyed a close-knit family. His best friend was Justin Moore. As a child he learned piano, violin, and art. He discovered photography as a hobby in his hometown of Lenox. At age fourteen he received his first camera from a magazine promotion. His interest with the toy camera led him to getting a slightly better camera with which he would take hundreds of photographs of the town and his family. He was only the second person in Lenox to own a camera, and he developed the images himself. This early start led him to a vast and prolific career documenting each decade in his unique style of photography.

See also

VanDerZee: Photographer, 1886-1983, Deborah Willis-Braithwaite (Author), Rodger C. Birt (Author).


The career of the African-American photographer James VanDerZee spanned 80 years, from his turn-of-the-century photographs of family and friends in Lenox, Massachusetts, to his late portraits, made when he was in his nineties, of Bill Cosby, Eubie Blake and Jean-Michel Basquiat. VanDerZee is best remembered as the eyes of the Harlem Renaissance, and this book reproduces some of the thousands of photographs he took between the wars in New York's Harlem, where he ran the leading commercial photographic studio. They include portraits of celebrities and community leaders; children and families; weddings and parties; documentary photographs; and photographs of nudes or whimsical subjects for calendars and posters. This study includes many of VanDerZee's best-known images, and essays discussing his life and work.


The James Vanderzee Studio, Colin Westerbeck (Editor), James VanDerZee (Photographer), Dawoud Bey (Photographer).


From 1916 until 1969, James VanDerZee operated a portrait studio at various addresses in Harlem. In his heyday, from the 20s to the 40s, he took pictures of prominent Harlem figures like Marcus Garvey, the preacher Daddy Grace and Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. But in the latter part of his career, he spent more of his time on a mail-order business re-touching and restoring other people's old photographs. The same year that he closed his last location, however, his work was featured in the exhibition Harlem on My Mind at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although the exhibition was controversial, the attention that it attracted to VanDerZee's work finally brought the photographer, at age 83, the acclaim he deserved. This intimate catalogue recalls the environment in which VanDerZee worked and lived. While he did make portraits of local celebrities, including the stars of the many legitimate theaters open in Harlem before the war, his real bread-and-butter were clients from the community's thriving middle class. Despite laboring under related commercial constraints, VanDerZee pursued his work with imagination and verve, photographing his clients before elaborate backdrops or sets, making complex group portraits of Elks' lodge members, jazz bands, and ladies' clubs in their own settings.

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James Augustus Joseph VanDerZee's Timeline

June 29, 1886
Lenox, Berkshire, MA, USA
May 15, 1983
Age 96
Washington, DC, USA