James VanDerZee (1886-1983) was the pre-eminent studio photographer of African-American life in the years between the two World Wars. The portraits he produced from his Harlem studio during the 1920s and 1930s, of newlyweds, families, church groups, soldiers and celebrities, reveal to us how black Americans saw themselves and how they wished to be seen by the world at large. Bearing witness to the lives of ordinary individuals, many of whom had migrated from the South and from the Caribbean and fashioned new identities for themselves as they settled in New York City, VanDerZee did not merely capture their outward appearance - his portraits interpreted their inner dreams and aspirations.
With the opening of his Guarantee Photo Studio in 1917, VanDerZee's career as a master of the formal portrait genre coincided fortuitously with the upsurge in black cultural expression in the 1920s and 1930s known as the Harlem Renaissance. His subjects thus present a compelling view of a people transforming their collective past as they embraced the promise of modernity in one of the world's most sophisticated cities. What distinguished VanDerZee from other Harlem photographers was his meticulous care in 'staging' his subjects in the studio parlour. Whereas retouching techniques were widely used to brighten the eyes or enhance a smile, VanDerZee went beyond such commonplace practices to develop a repertoire that became his distinctive visual signature.