James Van Der Zee, “Self-portrait” (1931), gelatin silver print (all images courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Yesterday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem announced that they will jointly own 20,000 prints and 30,000 negatives by James Van Der Zee, a prolific photographer known for his lush portrayals of urbane Black middle-class life during the Harlem Renaissance. The prints and negatives, along with his studio equipment and ephemera, will be housed in the James Van Der Zee Archive — the third archive of an American photographer at the Met to date (the other two contain the works of Walker Evans, established in 2000, and Diane Arbus, established in 2007) and one of the largest collections of an individual photographer’s work in the world. The archive not only holds Zee’s expansive collection of works but also kicks off an initiative to conserve and digitize his works, and research the context of his photographs, his singular photographic techniques, and his life. This is the first time the Met will collaborate with a partner institution to “safeguard the legacy of an individual artist.”

Currently, the Studio Museum in Harlem already owns around 6,000 prints and 7,000 negatives, and the Met will acquire the remainder — 14,000 prints and 23,000 negatives — from his widow Donna Mussenden Van Der Zee and his institute. The Met will also hold the copyright to all of James Van Der Zee’s images. Efforts to establish the archive were initiated by Mussenden Van Der Zee back in the summer of 2018.

Van Der Zee was born in Lenox, Massachusetts, a predominantly white town that was a popular summer retreat spot for wealthy New Englanders. His parents had worked as a maid and a butler in Ulysses S. Grant’s White House, and he grew up with musical aspirations: he learned the piano and the violin early in youth and dreamed of becoming a professional violinist. His expressive inclinations did not stop with playing music. At 14, he got his first small box camera, which he earned from selling pink and yellow silk sachets of powder, and immediately got to work taking hundreds of photographs of his family and the town. 

James Van Der Zee, “Woman Holding Folding Camera” (1922), gelatin silver print

In 1906 — at the age of 20 — he moved to New York City with his brother, where he worked as an elevator operator and a waiter. After spending a year in Newark in 1915 working as a darkroom technician and photographer in a portrait studio, he moved back to New York and set up his first portrait studio. Two years later, together with his second wife, Gaynella Greenlee, he started the Guarantee Photo Studio in Harlem, where he would take countless portraits over the years. By this time, Harlem was already beginning to change rapidly from the middle-class white neighborhood that it had been when Van Der Zee first moved to New York — and by the mid-1920s, 200,000 Black Americans lived there, a byproduct of the Great Migration staging the demographic backdrop of the artistic, literary, and cultural outpouring of the Harlem Renaissance. 

Van Der Zee took photographs of the vibrant people, places, and events of Harlem — from weddings and funerals to barbershops and pool halls, from Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association. Some of the most famous of his subjects included Muhammad Ali, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Countee Cullen. His clients showed up in their best clothes, and he chatted with them to capture their likenesses better. When he worked from the studio, he drew from an array of glamorizing props, such as architectural pieces, backgrounds, and fashion accessories, paired immaculately with the personalities and appearances of his subjects. Sometimes, he had sitters play characters in a small situational drama: a child on the phone, or a gypsy fortune teller handing down a judgment. “I tried to pose each person in such a way as to tell a story,” he once said. 

After posing his subjects and taking their photographs, he frequently retouched and manipulated his negatives. Often, this would involve “beautifying” his photographs, straightening crooked teeth, smoothing over wrinkles, and filling in bald spots. “I had one woman come to me and say, ‘Mr. Van Der Zee, my friends tell me that’s a nice picture, but it doesn’t look like you.’ That was my style,” he explained. He also made use of the technique of montaging photos, superimposing the musical score for a song to a funerary portrait and adding a spectral child to a wedding portrait. 

James Van Der Zee, “Parade, Harlem” (1924-6), gelatin silver print

It is fitting that the Met is assuming custodianship of Van Der Zee’s life’s work, given the pivotal role it once played in introducing a broader public to his work. Although Van Der Zee was well-known by the Black community in Harlem for being a beautiful portraitist and a coveted photographer for hire, his oeuvre had not gained the attention of a larger public. In 1967, Reginald McGhee, a consultant working on an upcoming show at the Met, happened upon Van Der Zee’s studio in Harlem and discovered his collection of 75,000 photos taken over six decades. He was conducting photo research for what would turn out to be the notoriously contentious Harlem On My Mind exhibition the following year. Van Der Zee had been, up until then, more or less indifferent to seeking recognition from the art world — but the opposite could not be said: when his photographs were featured in the show, he gained instant acclaim. 

But his overnight celebrity didn’t come fast enough: weeks after the exhibition opened, he was evicted from his home in Harlem — a home that he had lived in for almost three decades. His business had never fully recovered after the Great Depression, and the increasing ubiquity of personal cameras reduced the demand for professional photography. By the time of the 1969 show, his wife’s health was in decline, and his finances were worse than they had ever been. To protect the large volume of prints and negatives that now found themselves without a home, McGhee established the James Van Der Zee Institute (which, for two years, was located at the Met), and under considerable emotional duress, Van Der Zee bequeathed his collection to the institute. “There was so much confusion at that time that I did whatever I was asked to do,” he later reflected. “I did not have a lawyer or anyone else to represent me.” In 1978, the institute became a part of the Studio Museum. 

James Van Der Zee, “Bride and Groom” (1927), gelatin silver print

Later, Van Der Zee’s relationships with McGhee, the Studio Museum, and the Met turned sour. In 1981, at the age of 95, Van Der Zee sued the Studio Museum in a bid to regain ownership of his some 125,000 prints, negatives, plates, and transparencies. Van Der Zee said that he had been living on public and charitable assistance in the years that his work sat in their museums’ collections, and that the compensation he had received for his collection amounted to “carfare, a suit, and a turkey.” “I intended to protect my collection” — which he valued at $10 million at the time — “and to provide for my financial well-being. I did not intend to permanently transfer my collection,” he said. “In these 12 years my intentions have been completely frustrated.” Over two years later — and a few weeks following his death — the suit was settled, with Van Der Zee’s estate reclaiming half of his collection and the other half divided between the Studio Museum and his institute.

This collaboration between the Met, the Studio Museum, and Donna Mussenden Van Der Zee marks a happier ending to the disagreements that blemished Van Der Zee’s rise to fame, and gives Van Der Zee’s work the pride of place it deserves. “The collection has found an ideal permanent home,” Mussenden Van Der Zee says.

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.