This picture book provides a biography of James Van Der Zee, a groundbreaking photographer born in Lenox, Massachusetts in 1886. James wanted a camera from an early age, and worked hard to afford one.
He became only the second person in Lenox to own one. He started taking pictures, and soon everyone in town was saying “Take a picture of me, James Van Der Zee!”
At age 18, James moved his photography business to Harlem, where he eventually opened his own studio. All the big names of the Harlem Renaissance came to him for their portraits. But as time went on, eventually most people got their own cameras, and James’s business declined.
He adapted by starting a business to restore old photographs. In addition, his collection of photos was used by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a visual history of Harlem. This exhibit brought him new clients, with people once again coming to him and saying “Take a picture of me, James Van Der Zee!”
An Afterword by the author gives more background on VanDerZee and also includes examples of some of his work. As she explains:
“James Van Der Zee saw himself as an artist first, then a photographer. He was a master at transforming simple photographs into elaborate works of art.”
During his life Van Der Zee took more than 75,000 photographs: “Each image shared an extraordinary story about the people of Harlem….” He died in 1983 at the age of ninety-six.
The author also includes a small bibliography and suggestions for further reading.
Illustrator Keith Mallett employs rich acrylic paintings that reflect his dedication to historical accuracy in the smallest details, such as styles of clothing and the way iconic buildings in Harlem would have looked when Van Der Zee was there. You can also find a great collection of Van Der Zee’s photographs here.
Evaluation: The prose in this book is not all that exciting, but the story is compelling nevertheless. The author does manage to convey a sense of Van Der Zee’s dedication to artistic quality and persistence. The striking pictures will help spark reader interest in the narrative.
Published by Lee & Low Books, 2017