'Evening Attire.' Photo: James VanDerZee, 1922. Photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution

CONNECTIONS: James VanDerZee of Lenox, photographer of Harlem Renaissance

“Harlem on My Mind” was a retrospective about the Harlem Renaissance. Someone suggested the Met archivist ask VanDerZee if he had any photographs.

He was the 18th president of the United States (1869-77). He was a successful general and an impeached president who died in bankruptcy. He was also a native New Yorker. After his term in office, Hiriam Ulysses Grant returned to the city. From 1877 until his death in 1885, Grant lived at 3 East 66th St. with his wife and household staff.

Cheated by his business partner, he was forced into bankruptcy in 1884. His estate was restored posthumously when Mark Twain published Grant’s memoirs. However, the last two years of his life were lived in straightened circumstances.

In 1884, Grant’s butler and maid, John and Susan Elizabeth VanDerZee, left his service and moved to Lenox, Massachusetts. John took a job as sexton of Trinity Church. They made a home on Hubbard Street and started a family. Their first child, Jennie, was born in 1885. Brother James was born the following year. The VanDerZees had six children, but from an early age, James was exceptional.

James could play piano and violin, but his passion was something he happened upon by accident. An itinerant photographer knocked on the door of the VanDerZee house and offered to take a family portrait. John and Susan agreed. So started the romance between James and the camera.

“Three Black boys.” The photograph was taken in Lenox and these may be three VanDerZee children, and one may be James, but that is only speculation. Photo courtesy Lenox Library

He was only in the fifth grade when he made his first sale as a photographer. He took photographs of the staff and students with his mail-order box camera. He used film purchased at the Lenox pharmacy. He learned to develop the film himself and sold the final products for 10 cents each.

There is a story that he was embarrassed to charge, as he did not know that photographs were a saleable commodity. Maybe, but that is hard to believe, since his first exposure was to a man with a camera selling a family portrait to his parents. In any case, these were the simple beginnings of the man who would become chronicler of an important period in American history: the Harlem Renaissance.

John developed TB and left his position as church sexton. He worked as a waiter at the Aspinwall, but soon sought work in New York City. In 1904, James and brother Walter followed their father to New York. John, James and Walter were waiters at the Knickerbocker until James found he could make as much or more money as a musician. Susan and the other three children, one died in early childhood, remained in Lenox. It was a split in the family. James never returned.

By 1918, James, then 32, opened his first photography studio in Harlem. He had arrived in Harlem with the Harlem Renaissance (1918 to mid-1930s). He photographed what he saw, and what he saw was the emerging Black middle class and the accompanying emergence of Black art, music, poetry, literature and theater.

Image courtesy Amazon

He photographed the great, the near great, and the ordinary man and woman on the street, as long as that street was in Harlem. He did well until the camera was redesigned and sold widely as “the personal camera.” When people started taking their own pictures, James’ business faltered. He switched to passport photos but that did not sustain the business. He was on his uppers when, in 1969, the Metropolitan Museum of Art decided to do an exhibition.

“Harlem on My Mind” was a retrospective about the Harlem Renaissance. Someone suggested the Met archivist ask VanDerZee if he had any photographs.

Any photographs? VanDerZee had never thrown out a negative or a glass plate. It soon became an exhibition of the work of James VanDerZee.

“Harlem on My Mind” was not a critical success. It was unpopular with Black artists and art critics. It was seen as tone deaf, even demeaning. Nonetheless, it reminded the world of James VanDerZee, photographer. His photographs were lauded; it was the approach the museum took that was criticized.

James died in 1983, almost 100 years after his birth in Lenox. Those last years were filled with acknowledgements, exhibitions and books. They say when he was young, James wanted to be an artist. Then they say the magic of a photograph enthralled him. In the end, he painted an indelible picture of a time and place in American history.


Note: How, you ask, did Hiriam Ulysses become Ulysses S. Grant? West Point made a mistake. When he tried to correct it, Hiriam was told, “We don’t care what you, your mother, or father thinks your name is; to the United States government, you are Ulysses S. Grant.”