This presentation considers the African American photographer James Van Der Zee and his intentional strategy of cultivating clientele locally and internationally through enlargement and retouching services. A decreasing demand for decadent studio portraiture historically caused by the mass’s increasing access to handheld camera, forced Van Der Zee to adjust to the times in innovative ways. As a form of engagement with his photographic practice, Van Der Zee invited his clientele to bring him their photographs made by other proprietors for the purpose of reprinting, resizing, or enhancements to the surface. Often mentioned as an afterthought to his career if mentioned at all in scholarship, the selected images within this presentation are treated as important to understanding the full scope of the forms and function that thread throughout Van Der Zee’s long career and photography’s expanded role in African American visual culture and beyond.
Emilie C. Boone is an Assistant Professor of Art History in the African American Studies Department at CUNY New York City College of Technology. She focuses on the art and photography of the African Diaspora. Currently as the Chester Dale Fellow in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Photographs she is advancing her book project on the photographer James Van Der Zee. Her appointment at CUNY followed a Mellon Curatorial Fellowship at the Williams College Museum of Art and the completion of her PhD in Northwestern University’s Department of Art History.
James Van Der Zee (American, 1886–1983), Dancer, Harlem, negative 1924, printed 1974. Gelatin sepia-toned print, 6 1/2 x 4 3/4 in. Museum purchase, Otis Family Acquisition Trust, M.2017.9.9. Detail.