A Landmark Photo Archive of Black Life in New York Comes to the Met

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

The archive, which will be housed at the Met, comprises about 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 his legacy but has been dormant since the 1980s. Some 6,000 prints and 7,000 negatives are already in the collection of the Studio Museum, which will retain ownership of them.

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

Mrs. Van Der Zee, with the Studio Museum, has administered the estate since her husband’s death. Rosenheim would not disclose the sum the Met paid her for the prints and negatives, except to say it was “a really nice amount of money.” The Met also obtained the copyright for reproduction of Van Der Zee’s 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 Harlem residents commemorated their momentous life passages: first communion, military service, marriage. He was there, too, for their passing, which he portrayed in a remarkable series of photographs of open-casket funerals.

“He is a central figure, a significant artist, in telling the story of people of African descent,” said Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum. “The photographs are testaments to beauty and power, and he captured the Harlem community and the African American community in all its possibilities.”

Van Der Zee’s Harlem is composed of attractive, prosperous people who are brimming with vitality and optimism. Van Der Zee “allowed his sitters or clients to dream,” Rosenheim said. Dressed in their finest clothes and posing comfortably before his view camera, they glow with a radiance that brings to life the glamour of the Harlem Renaissance. In addition to the studio portraits, Van Der Zee took pictures of streetscapes, nightclubs, community associations and parades. Demonstrating his range and achievement, a selection of about 40 photographs is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington through May 30, 2022, drawn from their permanent collection.

Now that the Van Der Zee prints and negatives are gathered together, the Met and the Studio Museum will invite scholars to study them. “We are at the very beginning of a beautiful situation,” Rosenheim said. “I want to bring in archivists and art historians who are in the community and know Harlem landmarks. I want to go into the community and identify people” in the photographs.

Along with researching the backgrounds of Van Der Zee’s subjects, the custodians of the archive intend to investigate his techniques. “He had an extraordinary knowledge of lighting and printing and manipulation and coloring,” Rosenheim said. Some of his prints are hand-tinted with exceptional delicacy. In others, he manipulated the negatives to obtain the effect he wanted. In one portrait, he retouched the eye whites so that they project dramatically in high contrast on a woman’s face.

With the studio portraits, he liked to alter the backdrops by changing the set, either replacing the décor in a sitting room or inserting a new surrounding by combining two negatives. In the funeral pictures, he superimposed supernatural religious elements — angels, Christ, the Holy Dove — or musical notes (like the score of “Going Home,” a song derived from Dvorak’s “New World Symphony”). “I don’t know how he did it,” Rosenheim said. Van Der Zee’s manipulation of negatives is a subject for research. He was also a master printer. The sheer number of prints and alternate takes is exceptional. “He was not like any other studio photographer I’ve had the pleasure of working with,” Rosenheim said. “He was exceptional.”

Born to parents who had worked as domestic servants in the White House of Ulysses Grant, Van Der Zee grew up in Lenox, Mass., where along with buying a camera and teaching himself to use it, he demonstrated a precocious musical talent. When he came to New York in 1906 at the age of 20, he aspired to be a violinist. He continued to play; in one later self-portrait, he is holding a violin. He was also proficient on the piano, performing with the Fletcher Henderson Band. But working in a department-store photography studio to earn a living, he discovered his lifelong vocation, which provided not only a livelihood but an outlet for his boundless creativity.

When the Studio Museum moves into its new building in 2024, designed by David Adjaye, the two museums aim to stage concurrent shows that will explore Van Der Zee’s achievements. “One of the most exciting possibilities is a joint exhibition between our two institutions that will look at the work in a new way,” Golden said. The Studio Museum has an eight-month-long program, “Expanding the Walls,” for high school students to learn from Van Der Zee’s work in advancing their own photography. “His very particular vision has the power to be inspirational to generations of artists who have seen the possibility of what it means to chronicle in time and place a people and a culture,” Golden said. “His 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 archive for the future, because Van Der Zee’s photographs will inform and propel younger artists to chronicle worlds still unknown.