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January 30, 2017

Couple in Raccoon Coats, Harlem, 1932

To many white Americans in the 1930s, black people were little more than domestics or sharecroppers. They were ignored, invisible, forgotten. But that was not what James Van Der Zee saw when he gazed through his camera lens.

The photo "Couple in Raccoon coat" above was taken on West 127th Street in Harlem, a historic black neighborhood in New York City, in 1932 during the Great Depression. The theme of this photo and most of James Van Der Zee's photos is black middle class.

The couple in this photo represented the embodiments of the style, prosperity, and class in the New Negro identity as it developed during the Harlem Renaissance. The two of them are wrapped in raccoon fur coats getting into their shiny black car.

James Van Der Zee was born on June 29, 1886 and best known for his portraits of black New Yorkers. He was born in Lenox, Massachusetts and in 1906 he moved to Harlem, New York. James owned his own studio, Guarantee Photography, and within two years he was immediately successful. In 1932, he outgrew his first studio and went on to open a much larger studio.

This portrait is a perfect depiction of how he wanted blacks in Harlem to be portrayed. It truly captures the "New Negro Movement", the couple exudes wealth, from their fur coats, to the shiny new black Cadillac they are posing on.


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