CUNY Professor to Speak at WCMA About Photographer James Van Der Zee

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Emilie Boone, an assistant professor of art history in the African American Studies Department at CUNY New York City College of Technology, will speak about African American photographer James Van Der Zee at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, April 18, at the Williams College Museum of Art.

The talk, titled “James Van Der Zee’s Forgotten Photographic Practice: New Forms of Visual Engagement,” is presented in conjunction with WCMA’s current exhibit “James Van Der Zee: Collecting History,” which highlights WCMA’s recently acquired portfolio of 18 photographs by Van Der Zee (1886-1983) during the first half of the 20th century.

Born and raised in Lenox, Mass., Van Der Zee established a thriving photography studio in Harlem by 1916 and served as the foremost chronicler of black life in New York City during the early 20th century. “James Van Der Zee: Collecting History” is on display through May 15.

Boone’s talk considers Van Der Zee’s intentional strategy of cultivating clientele locally and internationally through enlargement and retouching services.

“A decreasing demand for decadent studio portraiture, historically caused by an increasing access to handheld cameras, forced Van Der Zee to adjust to the times in innovative ways,” Boone said. “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.

Boone, who completed a Mellon Curatorial Fellowship at WCMA in the spring of 2016, 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 the Chester Dale Fellow in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Photographs, she is advancing a book project on Van Der Zee.

The talk is free and open to the public. For more information, visit