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James Van Der Zee’s Photographs: A Portrait of Harlem at the National Gallery of Art
James Van Der Zee was the photographic chronicler of Harlem as it was becoming the mecca for Black life and culture between 1920 and 1940. His work remains an important artifact of that era, including its depictions of major figures like Marcus Garvey and Sweet Daddy Grace. But don’t come to the small retrospective of his work at the National Gallery of Art expecting to find a deep, investigative look at his milieu. Instead, the exhibit confirms Van Der Zee’s mastery of studio portraiture. He always seemed to get his sitters to smile and exude charm and charisma; to enable this look, his customers could leverage Van Der Zee’s collection of props, including stylish wardrobe pieces and canvas backdrops. In some cases, Van Der Zee went the extra mile by hand-etching phantom “jewelry” such as rings and necklaces into some of his negatives. Slightly less staged are Van Der Zee’s storefront images of local restaurants, fish markets, and nightclubs. By contrast, examples of informal compositions are rare; one is a panoramic image of youngsters on a swimming team in which the children refreshingly refuse to be corralled into order. Two elements of the exhibit are particularly poignant: The collection’s sole photograph of white subjects emerged from a gig photographing sales girls working at Blumstein’s department store in Harlem; the group portrait was taken just a few years before a civil rights boycott pushed the store to hire Black sales staff for the first time. The other affecting touch is the exhibit’s discussion of Harlem on My Mind, a 1969 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit that is best known for excluding works by such prominent, Harlem-based Black artists such as Romare Bearden, Faith Ringgold, and Jacob Lawrence. The exhibit did feature Van Der Zee and helped resurrect his oeuvre in the public eye, but the day after the show closed, Van Der Zee was evicted from his home. The photographer died, here in D.C., in 1983. James Van Der Zee’s Photographs: A Portrait of Harlem is on display through May 30, at the National Gallery of Art West Building, 6th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. nga.gov. Free.