Photographers during the Harlem Renaissance Essay

Published: 2020-04-22 15:06:56
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The years between World War I and the Great Depression was a period of prosperity for the United States. 1 There were plenty of jobs in the city especially in the North which caused 750,000 African Americans to migrate from the South. Harlem, a section of New York City, drew a great number of African Americans, consequently making it the largest community of African Americans in the whole world. In the 1920s, the African Americans that have settled in Harlem experienced a spiritual coming of age and were able to find an opportunity for group expression and self determination.

2 As a result, literature, art, music and social commentary, usually concerning the African-American culture, began to flourish in Harlem. 3 Originally called the New Negro Movement, the revolution became more popular as Harlem Renaissance. Aside from writers, dancers, blues and jazz artists, the Harlem Renaissance was able to produce renowned photographers that became known for their own creative ways of depicting the literary and socially revolutionary era. This paper will present the photography styles of three photographers from the Harlem Renaissance namely: James VanDerZee, Carl Van Vechten and Gordon Parks.

James VanDerZee Born on June 29, 1886 in Lennox, Massachusetts, VanderZee is almost completely self-taught in photography. 4 He started taking pictures as a child but got his first exposure in photography when he worked as a darkroom assistant in Newark, New Jersey in 1915. He ultimately became a portraitist and returned to Harlem in 1916, setting up his own portrait studio at a music conservatory that his sister founded in 1911. He soon set about the business of photographing Harlem. Prominent citizens, socialites, political and religious leaders graced his studio.

5 The portrait of Bill Bojangles Robinson, the famous tap dancer, taken in 1933 is shown in a double portrait. He also 3 photographed Florence Mills, a famous actress during that era; Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. , minister of Abyssinian Baptist Church; Jack Johnson, former heavyweight champion; and Marcus Garvey, the African American nationalist who promoted a Back to Africa movement in the 1920s. 6 VanderZee also photographed ordinary African Americans, usually during momentous occasions in their lives such as weddings or funerals.

Since infant mortality was higher during his time than it is now, VanDerzee was often asked to take a picture of a loved one who had died so that the bereaved family will have something in remembrance of their departed loved ones. 7 His pictures were ultimately published as Harlem Book of the Dead. In his portraits of children, he positions the child as if asleep and usually holding their favorite toy. In other cases, he inserts pictures of angels and photographs of the child when he was still alive, into the pictures of the dead body that he took.

He does this in order to take the gruesomeness of the picture and make it look like the children suffer no longer but have found rest. One of the trademarks of VanDerZees photographs is his depiction of his fellow African Americans as beautiful and dignified. 7 One of his well-known works, The Couple at Harlem, taken in 1932, shows a couple dressed in raccoon coats posing beside their Cadillac. This portrait, characteristic of VanDerZee, shows security and prosperity in the neighborhood. As early as the 1930s, VanDerzee was already experimenting with photography styles.

He already does retouching of photographs, at times even adding adornments to the pictures that he took. He erases wrinkles, adds jewelry, and creates his own backdrop in order to create a touch entirely his own. 7 He may sometimes cut down the mouth or sharpen the nose in order to make the image more pleasing to look at. VanDerZee, when working in 4 his studio, used plenty of props such as backdrops, costumes and architectural elements in order to achieve a photograph with an air of Victorian and Edwardian era to it. 4 The Couple At Harlem. [Online Image] Available http://ls.

berkeley. edu/~shiffrar/photog/vanderzee. jpg, 1932 VanDerzee also experimented with other photographic techniques such as the double-exposure technique. This style was used in The Last Goodbye, Overseas, which features a wartime cartoon superimposed on the photograph of a soldier. The viewer, upon looking at the soldiers photograph will be able to see his thought as he remembers his lost companions. 5 By the same technique, he created Future Expectations (Wedding Day, Harlem) which features a bride and groom posing in front of a fireplace.

A dream-like image of their future daughter, holding a doll in her lap, appears next to the couple. VanDerZee, then etched into the negative the image of a heart linked together, which is found inside the fireplace. 5 Future Expectations. [Online Image] Available http://www. sptimes. com/News/022201/Weekend/Portrait_of_a_communi. shtml, 1926 Carl Van Vechten Van Vechten spent most of his life not really as a photographer but as a writer. He published essays relating to music, ballet and cats the feline creatures being his obsession.

He wrote his first novel in 1922, and published the highly controversial novel, Nigger Heaven in 1926. 8 Unlike VanDerZee who photographs celebrities and common people of both genders, Van Vechtens photographs involve mostly women. He seem to be passionately interested in female portraits for even as a youth in Iowa, he took photographs of his paternal grandmother and later on of two little black girls in front of a beach house in Ohio. 9 Van Vechten sometimes prints these photos to use in regular correspondence. Some of his more famous subjects include jazz artists Ella Fitzgerald and Bessie Smith.

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