Historic Black Life photo archive in New York arrives at the Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem announced on Tuesday that they would share ownership of the archives of J...


The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem announced on Tuesday that they would share ownership of the archives of James Van Der Zee, a virtuoso photographer who, over a 70-year professional career, has produced an unrivaled chronicle of African American life in Harlem.

The archives, which will be housed at the Met, include approximately 20,000 prints and 30,000 negatives. The Met will acquire some 14,000 prints and 23,000 negatives from Donna Van Der Zee, the photographer’s widow, and the James Van Der Zee Institute, which was established to safeguard its heritage but has been dormant since the 1980s. 000 prints and 7000 negatives are already in the collection of the Studio Museum, which will keep the property.

The first and most urgent task is to preserve and digitize the negatives before they deteriorate irreversibly, said Jeff L. Rosenheim, curator in charge of the photography department at the Met. The early 20th century diacetate film is unstable, and with age the plastic base under the emulsion becomes brittle and detaches from the image-bearing layer. The Met’s curatorial service has encountered this problem previously with the first photographic archives it acquired, from Walker Evans, in 1994. In 2008, the museum also took possession of the Diane Arbus archives. The Van Der Zee archive is its third archive.

Ms. Van Der Zee, of the Studio Museum, has administered the estate since her husband’s death. Rosenheim would not disclose how much the Met paid him for the prints and negatives, except to say that it was “a very nice sum of money.” The Met also secured the copyrights for the reproduction of the Van Der Zee images.

Operating out of a studio at 272 Lenox Avenue (now Malcolm X Boulevard), Van Der Zee, who died in 1983, provided portraits in which the people of Harlem commemorated the important moments in their lives: first communion, military service, marriage. He was also there for their deaths, which he portrays in a remarkable series of open-casket funeral photographs.

“He is a central figure, an important artist, who tells the story of people of African descent,” said Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum. “The photographs are a testament to beauty and power, and it has captured the Harlem community and the African American community in all of its possibilities.”

Van Der Zee’s Harlem is made up of attractive and successful people who are bursting with vitality and optimism. Van Der Zee “made his caretakers or clients dream,” said Rosenheim. Dressed in their finest clothes and posing comfortably in front of her camera, they glow with a sparkle that brings Harlem Renaissance glamor to life. In addition to studio portraits, Van Der Zee has photographed streetscapes, nightclubs, community associations and parades. Demonstrating its scope and success, a selection of around 40 photographs is on display at the Washington National Art Gallery until May 30, 2022, taken from their permanent collection.

Now that the Van Der Zee prints and negatives are in place, the Met and the Studio Museum will invite researchers to study them. “We’re at the very beginning of a great situation,” said Rosenheim. “I want to bring in archivists and art historians who are part of the community and know the monuments of Harlem. I want to go into the community and identify the people ”in the photographs.

In addition to researching the antecedents of Van Der Zee’s subjects, the keepers of the archives intend to study his techniques. “He had extraordinary knowledge of lighting, printing, handling and coloring,” Rosenheim said. Some of her prints are hand-tinted with exceptional delicacy. In others, he manipulated the negatives to achieve the effect he wanted. In one portrait, he retouched the whites of the eyes so that they project dramatically in high contrast on a woman’s face.

With studio portraits, he liked to modify the settings by changing the decor, either by replacing the decor of a living room, or by inserting a new environment by combining two negatives. In the funeral images, he superimposed supernatural religious elements – angels, Christ, the Holy Dove – or musical notes (like the sheet music for “Going Home”, a song derived from Dvorak’s “New World Symphony”). “I don’t know how he did it,” Rosenheim said. The manipulation of negatives by Van Der Zee is a subject of research. He was also a master printer. The large number of prints and alternative takes is exceptional. “He was unlike any other studio photographer I had the pleasure of working with,” Rosenheim said. “He was exceptional.

Born to parents who had worked as servants at Ulysses Grant’s White House, Van Der Zee grew up in Lenox, Massachusetts, where, in addition to buying a camera and learning how to use it, he showed early musical talent. When he arrived in New York in 1906 at the age of 20, he aspired to become a violinist. He continued to play; in a later self-portrait, he holds a violin. He was also proficient at the piano, playing with the Fletcher Henderson Band. But working in a department store photography studio for a living, he discovered his lifelong calling, which provided him not only with a livelihood, but also an outlet for his limitless creativity.

When the Studio Museum moves into its new building in 2024, designed by David Adjaye, the two museums aim to put on simultaneous shows that will explore the achievements of Van Der Zee. “One of the most exciting possibilities is a joint exhibition between our two institutions that will look at work in a new way,” Golden said. The Studio Museum offers an eight-month program, “Expanding the Walls,” for high school students to learn from Van Der Zee’s work to advance their own photography. “His very special vision has the power to inspire generations of artists who have seen the possibility of what it means to chronicle time and situate a people and a culture,” said Golden. “Her work inspires them to look at their world with precision and record it in the present.”

She said the happiest outcome of the collaboration is that it safely preserves the archives for the future, as Van Der Zee’s photographs will inform and propel young artists in chronicle of as yet unknown worlds.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Historic Black Life photo archive in New York arrives at the Met
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