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April 10, 2017

African-American Women in the Early 20th Century Through James Van Der Zee's Lens

James Van Der Zee (1886-1983) was a renowned, Harlem-based photographer known for his posed, storied pictures capturing African-American citizenry and celebrity.

The Harlem Renaissance was in full swing during the 1920s and '30s, and for decades, Van Der Zee would photograph Harlemites of all backgrounds and occupations, though his work is particularly noted for its pioneering depiction of middle-class African-American life. He took thousands of pictures, mostly indoor portraits, and labeled each of his photos with a signature and date, which would prove to be important for future documentation.

Although Van Der Zee photographed many African-American celebrities—including Florence Mills, Hazel Scott and Adam Clayton Powell Jr.—most of his work was of the straightforward commercial studio variety: weddings and funerals (including pictures of the dead for grieving families), family groups, teams, lodges, clubs, and people simply wanting to have a record of themselves in fine clothes. He often supplied props or costumes and took time to carefully pose his subjects, giving the picture an accessible narrative.

These charming photos were African-American women that he shot from the 1920s and 1930s.



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