Works in the Collection
James Van Der Zee was born in 1886 in Lenox, Massachusetts. He was the second of six siblings. Van Der Zee’s passion for photography developed early. He bought his first camera when he was a teenager, taking photographs for his high school and improvising a dark room in his home. He began his photography career working as a darkroom assistant in a department store and opened his own studio, Guarantee Photo, in Harlem in 1916. Van Der Zee made his living photographing Harlem residents and is renowned today for his depictions of the African American middle class. Van Der Zee struggled financially for most of his career. The 1969 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition Harlem On My Mind, brought him some renewed attention and acclaim but did little to pull him and his wife, Gaynella Greenlee, out of financial straits.
After the passing of his wife, Van Der Zee began working with gallery director Donna Mussenden, and the two married in 1978. Mussenden organized public appearances for Van Der Zee and helped position him as the go-to photographer for celebrities such as Cicely Tyson, Muhammed Ali, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Towards the end of his career, Van Der Zee was named a permanent fellow of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was granted an honorary doctorate from Howard University and even received a Living Legacy Award from President Jimmy Carter. Van Der Zee died in 1983 at the age of 96.