Read On!

Mrs. Farquharson’s musings about books for children and young adults

James VanDerZee (1886-1983)


Being an artist, I had an artist’s instincts. You can see the picture before it’s taken; then it’s up to you to get the camera to see. James VanDerZee

Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee by Andrea J. Loney, illustrated by Keith Mallett (Lee & Low Books)

The Harlem Renaissance is an important era in our artistic, intellectual, and social history. The era is primarily recognized as taking place in Harlem in New York City. Some describe it as spanning from 1918 through the mid 1930s and also occurring in other areas of the United States as well as Paris, France. However, it was the African-American culture in Harlem that spawned this rich movement. One of the leading figures in the Harlem Renaissance was James VanDerZee, a musician and photographer who chronicled the era through his lens.

James was born and raised in Lenox, Massachusetts which even then was a summer vacation destination for the wealthy. More importantly, it was a multicultural town that James’ parents had purposely chosen to raise their family. As he grew up, James played the violin and piano and he painted. When a professional photographer passed through town and took family portraits, James became intrigued and got his first camera. He not only learned how to take pictures, but he also developed them in a darkroom in his home. When he was in fifth grade, he became his school’s photographer. Visiting aristocrats enlisted him to take their pictures.

In 1906, when he moved to the New York City area, James used his musical talent to play with two well-known orchestras. He began his own group, the Harlem Orchestra. At the beginning of those years, he was an assistant in a portrait studio. James went on to establish his own successful studio, and he took photographs of daily life in Harlem as well as those of prominent African Americans.

In the Afterword of her book, Andrea Loney describes James VanDerZee eloquently:

During his lifetime James VanDerZee created thousands of portraits, took more than 75,000 photographs, and created more than 125,000 plates, negatives, transparencies, and prints. Each image shared an extraordinary story about the people of Harlem, the quiet beauty of their everyday lives, the grandeur of their hopes and dreams, and most of all, their inherent dignity and pride.

James VanDerZee was truly a Renaissance man.

(Credit: Wikipedia – Photo of James VanDerZee)




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