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James Van Der Zee: The Eye of the Harlem Renaissance

Photographer James Van Der Zee depicted the lives of black New Yorkers for decades. Forty of his influential portraits spanning the 1920s through the 1950s will be on view at Howard Greenberg Gallery from March 7- April 27, 2019. James Van Der Zee: Studio marks the celebrated photographer’s first exhibition in New York in over 15 years, providing a window into his legendary Harlem studio and the vast archive he created of the neighborhood’s cultural history.

When Van Der Zee opened his photography studio on 135th Street in 1918, a new era was beginning in Harlem, a time when jazz, poetry, art, and literature all flourished. Capturing the glamour as well as everyday life, Van Der Zee became known as the eye of the Harlem Renaissance.

Van Der Zee used painted backdrops and luxurious props, creating elaborate tableaux for his subjects. He also bathed them in flattering lighting. After developing his photographs, he would sometimes carefully hand color the images. “Finding and portraying the elegance and refinement of his subjects was his mission be it Marcus Garvey, the noted civil rights activist and politician, or multiple generations celebrating a family event,” writes the gallery in a statement.

While known predominantly for his portraits, Van Der Zee also chronicled the streets around him. The exhibition will include his photographs showing Harlem storefronts, parades, and church groups. Together with his portraits, the quotidien views provide the most complete picture available of lives lived in Harlem during the first half of the 20th century.

James Van Der Zee’s legacy has inspired numerous contemporary artists. “Seeing Van Der Zee’s photographs of ordinary African Americans marked the beginning of my own aspirations,” notes Dawoud Bey, whose work will be subject of a traveling exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art next year. “Certainly my early Harlem, USA photographs sought to portray the Harlem residents of the 1970s with a dignity that I first encountered in his work.”

Van Der Zee’s inclusion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Harlem on My Mind exhibition in 1969 brought his work to a new audience and secured his reputation as one of the great photographers of the 20th century.

James Van Der Zee: Studio
Howard Greenberg Gallery
March 7 – April 27, 2019
An opening reception will be held on Thursday, March 7, from 6 – 8 p.m.

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