The Mastery of James Van Der Zee at the National Gallery of Art

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The Photographs of James Van Der Zee: A Portrait of Harlem at the National Gallery of Art

James Van Der Zee was the photographic chronicler of Harlem as it became a mecca of black life and culture between 1920 and 1940. His work remains an important artifact of that era, including his 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 exhibition confirms Van Der Zee’s mastery of studio portraiture. He always seemed to make his models smile and exude charm and charisma; to enable this look, her clients could take advantage of Van Der Zee’s collection of accessories, 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 onto some of his negatives. Van Der Zee’s images of restaurant storefronts, fish markets and nightclubs are a bit less staged. In contrast, examples of informal compositions are rare; one is a panning image of youngsters on a swim team in which the kids refreshingly refuse to be boxed in order. Two elements of the exhibit are particularly poignant: the only photograph of white subjects in the collection emerged from a concert photographing saleswomen working at the Blumstein department store in Harlem; the group portrait was taken just a few years before a civil rights boycott prompted the store to hire black sales staff for the first time. The other touching touch is the exhibition’s discussion of Harlem in my head, a 1969 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit that is best known for excluding works by prominent Harlem-based black artists such as Romare Bearden, Faith Ringgold, and Jacob Lawrence. The exhibition featured Van Der Zee and helped resurrect his work in the public eye, but the day after the exhibition closed, Van Der Zee was evicted from his home. The photographer died, here in DC, 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. To free.

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