James Van der Zee (1886-1983)
At Home, Josephine Becton (variant), 1934
James Van der Zee’s ability to endow his sitters with a sense of style and dignity is evident in his photographic portrait of Josephine Becton, the wife of George Becton, a wealthy and well-known Harlem evangelist. Unlike most of his portraits, which were made in his studio, this one was photographed in Becton’s own home. Both client and artist chose specific objects to portray her as a cultured, well-to-do woman of the African American middle class. The large cross around her neck distinguishes her as a religious person and draws attention to the expensive and stylish dress she wears while seated in her ornately furnished room.
Multiple props are scattered around the room: there are flowers on the floor and piano, an open box of chocolates on a stool, and a silver tea set in the foreground. These items likely came from Van der Zee’s studio, while the furniture, rugs, and piano all probably belonged to Becton. Although she is not looking at us, the chocolates and the open space in the foreground give the impression that we are invited into her living room. As the central figure of the photograph, she sits on a piano stool with both hands in her lap and looks off to the left. Her relaxed expression and the fact that she is in her own well-furnished room are other indicators of her elevated status as a woman of leisure.
Van der Zee’s portraiture demonstrates the dignity and pride of the African American people during the Harlem Renaissance movement of the 1920s and 1930s. This movement was inspired by the 1925 text edited by Alain Locke, The New Negro: An Interpretation. Like Van der Zee’s photographs, the illustrations by Winold Reiss in The New Negro portrayed African Americans as educated, cultured, and modern. The New Negro movement’s goal was to create a new and improved image of African Americans. Given its ability to convey visual truth, photography was the perfect medium for creating and distributing the New Negro image.
Widely sought after as a commercial photographer in Harlem from the opening of his first studio in 1916 to just after World War II, Van der Zee had the power to realize African Americans’ image of themselves. He retouched photographs to erase signs of ill health or poor dental care, and let his sitters choose from an array of clothing, props, and backdrops kept in his studio to evoke a sense of self-worth and high social standing.
Born in Lenox, Massachusetts, in 1886 to a middle-class African American family, Van der Zee grew up in a community without overt racism. When he was a teenager, he started photographing family and friends, and then eventually school groups, athletic clubs, and social organizations. He moved to Harlem in 1908, where he documented every aspect of the black community. In addition to portraits of individuals, he photographed weddings, funerals, religious groups, political rallies, street scenes, and individuals of every social class.
For further reading:
Everett, Gwen. African American Masters: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003. Print.
Patton, Sharon. African American Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.
Studio Museum in Harlem. Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America. Exh. Cat. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985. Print.
Willis-Braithwaite, Deborah, and Rodger C. Birt. VanDerZee, Photographer, 1886-1983. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1993. Print.
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