Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 24, 2024
Emilie Boone A Nimble Arc: James Van Der Zee and Photography Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2023. 288 pp.; 76 color ills. $27.95 (9781478024903)

The significance of James Van Der Zee (1886–1983) to the history of photography and to the story of Black life and culture in the twentieth century is immense. And yet, as Emilie Boone elucidates in her sterling book, A Nimble Arc: James Van Der Zee and Photography, there is much about the artist’s prodigious and probing practice that beckons further consideration. Some of what has made it difficult to narrate Van Der Zee’s extraordinary artistic achievements tidily, Boone observes, is the sheer length of his career, which spanned more than eight decades, from 1900–83. That his images shuttle between capturing the spectacular and the everyday while simultaneously refusing facile attempts to explain them by attaching them to particular periods or aesthetic movements no doubt presents additional challenges, especially for an art historical imagination that sometimes privileges such delimitations. As the title of the book intimates, Boone advocates and opts for a much nimbler approach in examining Van Der Zee’s work. In so doing, she offers up a rich analysis of the ways the photographer powerfully represents and attends to the multiplicity of the “Black quotidian.”

Boone’s “turn away from the iconicity of Van Der Zee’s prototypical Harlem Renaissance photographs toward the noniconicity of the Black quotidian” (20) proves revelatory on several fronts, opening important space to contemplate the vastness of Van Der Zee’s practice and to consider what the images he created continue to do and undo in the world. In chapter one, this strategic pivot enables Boone to provide a more nuanced account of the social and cultural milieus that inspired the New England-born Van Der Zee to open up his earliest studios in Harlem in the 1910s and strive to distinguish himself from the other Black portrait photographers who set up shop in the neighborhood in ensuing years. Van Der Zee was certainly not without competition, which made it all the more necessary for him and his peers to offer customers unique experiences and products. In Van Der Zee’s case, this included fashioning an environment that “both evoked the commercial parlor room of nineteenth-century photography studios and created a sense of domestic home life that reflected many of the residences Van Der Zee captured for his clients” (62). It also included remaining attuned to the value and utility of the photograph in the lives of his Black subjects.

As chapter two’s considerations of the images Van Der Zee produced while serving as the official lensman for Marcus Garvey in 1924 evidence, both Black leaders and ordinary people alike were keen to exploit the power of photography to advance their radical aims and aspirations. Boone details how Van Der Zee’s photographs of Garvey and supporters of his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) circulated in newspapers and other forms of print media in the chapter. These images were crucial in amplifying UNIA’s calls for the eradication of colonialism and racism—and for greater self-sufficiency and self-determination among Black people—globally. “The international circulation of and demand for Van Der Zee’s photographs are demonstrated by the portraits of Prince Kojo Tovalou-Houénou of Benin, a featured speaker at the 1924 convention, who requested fifteen hundred copies from the local photographer,” Boone reflects (79). That these and other images Van Der Zee snapped traveled far beyond the sites of their original taking only served to bolster his reputation. In analyzing reproductions of these images in venues such as the Garvey-founded Negro World newspaper and other Black media outlets, Boone deepens understanding of the import and effects of Van Der Zee’s photographs in the past and in the present.

Van Der Zee was certainly a gifted maker of images. However, as chapter three outlines, he also developed a name for copying, enhancing, and restoring photographs taken by others. Van Der Zee’s shift to providing modification and reproduction services in the 1940s coincided with a change in tastes and interests for the portraits that were the bedrock of his studio in the preceding decades. The examples of these refashioned images found in Van Der Zee’s archives, Boone admits, pose multiple challenges for the researcher, particularly since it is not always clear where the original photographer’s work ends, and Van Der Zee’s begins. Even still, centering these images provides a vital springboard for Boone to enhance discussions about Van Der Zee’s skills as an artist while further complicating prevailing views about the signature characteristics of his aesthetic. The choice also invites consideration of the various concerns that Black people continued to evince about race and representation during the Jim Crow era. “Image manipulation is another level of imagining a modicum of freedom and choice over representation. Sending an image far away, so that it will come back improved, is a powerful act that illustrates a level of trust in the photographer’s ability to transform a photograph into something better,” Boone asserts (147). Among the many striking things about the chapter are the ways it renders salient the spirit of invention that enabled Van Der Zee to sustain his practice and studio deep into the civil rights era.

It was in the aftermath of the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s that the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted its 1969 exhibition, “Harlem on My Mind”: The Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968. Rather than add to the chorus of critics who have pointed out the ways the controversial show failed to live up to its objectives, Boone revisits Harlem on My Mind to explore how the Van Der Zee images it exhibited helped transform the reception of photography in the “high art” and museum worlds. That more than fifty of Van Der Zee’s works were prominently displayed in the show is as notable as the fact that their inclusion only came about because a member of its organizing committee serendipitously happened upon Van Der Zee in his Harlem studio one day. “After inquiring about photographs of the neighborhood between the wars, [Reginald] McGhee was led to a rear storage room housing hundreds of prints and negatives, stored in boxes and bags, that Van Der Zee had meticulously kept over his decades-long career,” Boone writes (192). Remarkably, while Harlem on My Mind would generate considerable enthusiasm about Van Der Zee’s photographic practice, the movement of his work into fashionable museum spaces was not as lucrative as one might imagine. Indeed, Boone recalls how Van Der Zee and his wife endured a very traumatic eviction from their longtime home during the show’s run that, at one point, saw portions of his life’s work tossed on a Harlem sidewalk.

Boone concludes A Nimble Arc with a coda that shifts attention to the 1990s. These final pages spotlight the importance of the publication of Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography edited by Deborah Willis in 1994, the exhibition, VanDerZee, Photographer, 1886–1983, on view at the National Portrait Gallery from October 1993–February 1994, and artists Lorna Simpson’s 9 Props (1995) to the revitalized interest in Van Der Zee’s work that has endured into the twenty-first century. By doing so, the chapter underscores how toggling across and between temporalities, geographies, histories, and methodologies has been vital to the recuperative and interpretative work Boone pursues throughout the book. To be sure, it is this toggling that enables Boone to approach her subject with diligence and critical generosity while also “offering frameworks of values and perspectives within the space of the Black quotidian” (200). Boone’s shrewd analysis relishes in that space and, in the process, expands possibilities for how we might interrogate and appreciate the work of Black photographers both in art history and in our everyday lives. The result is a lucidly written and compellingly argued study that powerfully illuminates how Van Der Zee’s singular embraces of the iconic and noniconic and fine art and vernacular sensibilities in his photography served to transform the trajectory of his chosen medium.

Isaiah Matthew Wooden
Assistant Professor, Department of Theater, Swarthmore College