James Van Der Zee – Harlem Renaissance Photographer

James Van Der Zee

I had to dedicate a post to Harlem Renaissance photographer James Augustus Joseph Van Der Zee.  Born on June 29, 1886 in Lenox, Massachusetts, James Van Der Zee became the most sought after photographer during the Harlem Renaissance period.  James Van Der Zee moved to Harlem in 1906.  He held a series jobs which included developing photos at Gertz Department store.  Van Der Zee also played in the John Wanamker orchestra and Fletcher Henderson’s band.

James’s parents John and Elizabeth Van Der Zee worked for President Ulysses S. Grant.  James played several musical instruments, but the camera became his claim to fame.  James Van Der Zee took more than 75,000 photographers of Black American life during the Harlem Renaissance.  The great migration of Black America to Harlem began in 1915.  Black people moved to Harlem from the southern states and some came from the West Indies.  The Van Der Zee photo collection is the most extensive depicting every day life in Harlem, New York.

     James Van Der Zee is on the far left of this photo.
 Black Jews in Harlem
Dancing girls
 Large classroom
 The Cotton Club in Harlem, new York
Elegant couple in Harlem, New York

Marcus Garvey in Harlem parade.

Dance studio

The beginning of the great migration


Christmas morning 1933.  Notice the beautiful architectural details in this gorgeous Harlem brownstone.  Homes like this will never be built again.

Interior Harlem home

On the beach in Atlantic City New Jersey.

The Negro League (The Black Yankees)

Beauty salon

1920’s parade on 7th Avenue in Harlem, New York

James Van Der Zee staging a photo taking session.

Marcus Garvey is standing on the right hand side.

Harlem New York

Woman in Harlem home.  Her interior surroundings are beautiful and elegant.


Wedding reception

Portrait Photography
The Barefoot Prophet

 Girl in fancy dress 1938

James Van Der Zee’s studio was located on the east side of Lenox Avenue between 123rd and 124th Streets.  It was called G.G.G. Studio.    It was in the above ground basement of a Harlem brownstone.

 G.G.G. Studio

Today the exterior of tyhe studio can still be seen but one of the G’s is missing.

 James Van Der Zee

James Augustus Joseph Van Der Zee and his wonderful legacy of photographs were not “discovered” until 1969 when The Metropolitan Museim of Art held an exhibition of his photographs called Harlem On My Mind.  The exhibition brought Van Der Zee fame and much deserved accolades throughout America.  Van Der Zee had already retired several years prior to the exhibition but came out of retirement to resume taking photographs again until his passing on March 15, 1983.

American society is much in debt to James Van Der Zee for chronicling in photos a huge part of the Black experience over six decades.  Van Der Zee’s photos contradicts the way many people think of people of color.  The photos depict the elegance and beauty of Black America which contradicts notions of us all living in urban squalor and poverty.
 For decades during the late 1800’s and throughout the 20th century black people embraced the etiquette, elegance and importance of education of the Victorian and Edwardian period.  Evidence of this is clearly captured in the photographs of James Van Der Zee.
 This book has many precious James Van Der Zee photographs.  You can purchase it on Amazon.com from private sellers.  Most of the copies are very expensive but there are some copies left at very reasonable prices.  I paid $19.33 yesterday for a brand new copy.


  1. Cynthia A. Wilson says:

    i thoroughly enjoyed the vintage photographs on your site, especially those of Mr. James Van Der Zee. The Corcoran Museum ran an exhibit of Mr. Van Der Zee’s photographs in 1994, and also had one of the chairs from his original studio. It was a wonderful exhibit and I treated myself to a copy of the “VanDerZee Photographer 1886 – 1986”, from their museum shop. It is one of my favorite books. I also had the pleasure of meeting Mr. VanDerZee’s second wife, Donna, who encouraged him to resume his photography career when he was in his 80’s. Years ago I remember seeing some of his photos as posters and wish I had purchased one, especially one of his little girl. Thanks again for putting his photos online. It takes me back to a different time!

  2. Gloria P Johnson says:

    I have the picture of Dance Class 1928 by the photograper VanDerZee from the National Portrait Gallery Who can I contact to find out if the picture is valuable?

  3. Robert says:

    In 1980 when I lived in Oakland, CA, I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Van der Zee at an exhibit of his work at the Oakland Museum. He was 96 years young at the time. Mr. Van der Zee authographed a promotion poster of the exhibit. Miss Eartha Kitt was also attending the exhibit, and graciously autographed the poster also. The poster has a large photo of the young couple seated/standing near an old 1926 automobile. I don’t know the make of the car, but it sure is beautiful, as are the people in the photo. I had the poster framed and it’s hanging in my living room in Honolulu, Hawaii. What a treasure to own. I wish someone would promote an extensive exhibit of Mr. Van der Zee’s photographs; such beautiful photos that should be seen by all.

    • Xenia says:

      Hello Robert,

      I would love to know how you ended up in Honolulu, Hawaii. WOW!

      If I had access to James Van der Zee’s photos I would be exhibiting them all across the nation and overseas. I would even go for being a part of such an exhibition. James Van der Zee is one of the greatest photographers who ever lived. I think it would be great if his work was introduced to the younger generation especially.

      Thank you for commenting!

      • Robert says:

        Aloha Xenia! I have enjoyed viewing your site. I was born and raised in Milwaukee 64 years ago (12/10/1949). Many people still believe there aren’t many African Americans living in the city, but we have a long history of Black culture in the State of Wisconsin, going back to the early fur trade era in 1725. Leaving Milwaukee at the young age of 18 in 1968, I moved to Oakland, CA and attended the California College of Arts & Crafts (Bachelor Fine Arts-Graphic Design, 1972), from there, on to Honolulu in 1987 via a job transfer. Lucky for me. I enjoyed living in the Bay Area for 20 years, where we have a rich African American history and Hispanic history. (I am of mixed heritage. My father was African American from Louisiana and my mother was Mexican.) Here in Hawaii, we are a small percentage of the population (mostly military families), but we have a long history in the state also. If you’re interested, check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Africans_in_Hawaii. I only wish that many of our young generation would have an interest in their historical past; so much knowlege they are missing. We need to stress to young Black kids in high school the importance and richness of their heritage. I tell all the young kids wherever I visit to get a libary card, and READ, READ, READ!! Keep up the good work on your blog. Aloha from beautiful Hawaii.

  4. Raph Lenoir says:

    I enjoyed every photo. Mr Vanderzee was way before his time. That being a compliment. I I am definitely going to get more books and literature during this time period.

    • Xenia says:

      Hello Lucille, Thank you for stopping by my blog. I know what you mean about that era of time. Of course, racial prejudice was more widespread then, but I love the elegance that existed within people back then. Elegance of living, no matter what your economic status was is what is missing today. I grew up during the 1960’s and 70’s so I do recall a time of elegance. After the 1980’s society began to lose that elegance.

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