Exploring the Legacy of Photographer James Van Der Zee, Chronicler of Black life in 20th-century New York, January 31 to June 2, 2019

Images available upon request.

Press Contact: Greg Shook, Director of Media Relations, (413) 597-3401; [email protected]

Williamstown, Mass.— James Van Der Zee (1886–1983) became the foremost chronicler of Black life in New York City during the 20th century. Born and raised in Lenox, Mass., Van Der Zee established a thriving photography studio in Harlem by 1916. His studio portraiture, photojournalism, and editorial work garnered the support of politicians, celebrities, and millionaires. Van Der Zee’s career waned after World War II, but revived in the early 1970s when libraries, museums, and historical archives began collecting his work. The Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) exhibition, James Van Der Zee: Collecting History, highlights WCMA’s recently-acquired portfolio of eighteen Van Der Zee photographs. The show arranges the portfolio images chronologically with a Van Der Zee portrait of a soldier already in the WCMA collection and three works from the Sawyer Library: a Van Der Zee portrait of an unidentified young woman, a calendar of the artist’s work printed in the 1983, and a first edition of The Harlem Book of the Dead, the documentary collaboration between Van Der Zee and Toni Morrison in the late 1970s. James Van Der Zee: Collecting History will be feted in concert with the museum’s slate of new spring exhibitions during WCMA’s Season Celebration on Thursday, February 21, 2019, from 5-7PM.

“The exhibition explores how a local story becomes national history,” remarks co-curator, Horace Ballard. “The show introduces visitors to the broad trajectory of Van Der Zee’s audacious career: from his early images of friends and family in Lee and Lenox, Massachusetts, to his work as a prominent portrait photographer, to the “rediscovery” of his work during the Harlem on My Mind exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969.”

With this exhibition, WCMA becomes the first Berkshire museum to exhibit Van Der Zee’s work. According to Pamela Franks, WCMA’s Class of 1956 Director, the artist’s Berkshire County connections, his relationships with the most famous and wealthy African Americans of his era, and his experimental photographic practice prove an important legacy for Williams’ stewardship. “That two different collections at Williams boast Van Der Zee photographs in their catalogs is a testament to the artist’s evocative and expansive understanding of what a portrait could be,” observes Franks. “The exhibition is a chance to reflect with our partners at Sawyer Library on the College’s broader commitment to art as an inspiration for intellectual curiosity and rigor, cultural connoisseurship, and the work of diversity and inclusivity across disciplines.“

James Van Der Zee: Collecting History was organized by Horace Ballard, Assistant Curator, and Kevin Murphy, Eugénie Prendergast Senior Curator of American Art. It is presented in collaboration with Lisa Conathan, Head of Special Collections, Sawyer Library.

Williams College Museum of Art

The Williams College Museum of Art makes dynamic art experiences to incite new thinking about art, museums, and the world. At the heart of the Williams College campus the museum draws on the collaborative and multidisciplinary ethos of the surrounding college to enliven the more than 15,000 works in its growing collection. The museum and its collection are a catalyst for student learning and community engagement. WCMA is located on Main Street in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The museum is open 10 am to 5 pm, Thursdays 10 am to 8 pm, and closed Wednesdays September through May. In June, July, and August WCMA is open every day 10 am – 5 pm and 10 am – 8 pm on Thursdays. WCMA is free and open to all. For more information, contact the museum at 413-597-2429 or visit


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