BOOK: JAMES VAN DER ZEE - THE HARLEM BOOK OF THE DEAD
In Through A Lens Darkly, a new documentary by filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris that traces the history of African American photography, artists Hank Willis Thomas, Lorna Simpson, Anthony Barboza and others discuss James Van Der Zee’s impact on both black photography and, perhaps more importantly, identity. Known mainly for his exquisite studio portraits and unique retouching techniques, James Van Der Zee (1886-1983) not only documented, but articulated, life in Harlem during and beyond the famed Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.
Another service he provided through his studio was funerary portraits. For those with the financial means, post-mortem photographs were not uncommon at that time. In some cases, especially when it came to very young children, a funerary portrait would be the only photograph ever taken of a person, and the only photograph their families would have to remember them by. For people who had migrated to Harlem, funerary portraits could be sent back to relatives they had left behind who could not attend a loved one’s funeral.
Van Der Zee applied a darkroom technique he used in some of his studio portraits to his funerary photographs, using photo montage to insert poems and spiritual imagery around the subject. In certain instances, he photographed the deceased both in life and in death, and would montage their original portrait over the funerary one. This was the case with his daughter, Rachel, who died at 15 (photo #3).
Later on in his life, in 1978, these funerary portaits were assembled into a book, The Harlem Book of the Dead, and were accompanied by original poems and text by poet Owen Dodson and artist Camille Billops, as well as an intimate interview with the then-91 year old Van Der Zee. The book is an ode not only to lives past, but to a time past — and to a slice of history that might otherwise be lost. It is a meditation on death and loss, but also on beauty. In the book, and in his work, Van Der Zee was not only a photographer, but a custodian of memory. (read more)
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