Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

TO OCT. 30

Few artists waited as long for critical and popular recognition as James Van Der Zee. Born in 1886, Van Der Zee taught himself photography as a youngster after he won a camera as a premium for selling sachet powder. An African-American from Massachusetts, Van Der Zee opened a photography studio in Harlem that thrived amid the neighborhood’s vaunted renaissance. Van Der Zee’s fortunes declined after World War II, but in the late ’60s, his work was rediscovered and exhibited by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The 15 images (The Van Der Zee Men, Lenox, MA, 1908 is pictured) in the Kathleen Ewing Gallery’s current Van Der Zee exhibition all stem from around the Harlem Renaissance period. Of them, Couple, Harlem, 1932 is the most iconic—an image of a fur-coated, luxury-car-driving African-American couple at a time when most Americans, black and white, were wracked by the Great Depression. Van Der Zee’s portraits also document compelling subjects: the elaborately dressed preacher Daddy Grace, a family of followers of black leader Marcus Garvey, an “heiress” seated within her elegant apartment. But as in many studio portraits, the sitters’ almost total anonymity is, for a viewer at seven decades’ distance, more than a little frustrating. For a satisfying image, check out a bracing Van Der Zee photograph that happens to appear in the October issue of ARTnews: Taken by the 96-year-old Van Der Zee in 1982, it features the young graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat with his head in his hands, his braids askew, his pants speckled with paint, and a wary cat in his lap—all in glorious semi-focus. It’s strong evidence that Van Der Zee’s keen eye improved with age. His work is on view from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, to Wednesday, Oct. 30, at Kathleen Ewing Gallery, 1609 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. (202) 328-0955. (Louis Jacobson)