In the brochure for The Studio Museum in Harlem’s 1982 exhibition “Harlem Heyday: The Photography of James Van Der Zee,” art historian Deborah Willis wrote that Van Der Zee’s “artistry comes from his ability to combine his many elements as a painter, studio and journalistic photographer, but above all, his natural curiosity about people. This aspect of his works enabled him to make photographs which synthesized the elements of design and composition.”
James Van Der Zee (1886–1983) was one of the most renowned photographers of the Harlem Renaissance. His expansive practice captured the glamour of the burgeoning arts and music scenes, as well as everyday life during the Harlem Renaissance. He carefully set up his portraits of Black subjects by using painted backdrops, luxurious props, creating elaborate tableaux for his subjects, and bathing them in flattering lighting. After developing his photographs, he would, at times, hand-color his images. Highlighting the elegance and refinement of his subjects was his mission, be it Marcus Garvey, the noted civil rights activist and politician, multiple generations celebrating a family event, or a proud individual.