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Themes of the Harlem Renaissance Captured Photographically and Present Today Emily Blumenthal 5.18.18 IDC


At a glance, we take for granted the artistic beauty of New York City in assumption that it was always present. Artwork utilized as means of either entertainment, or art with an agenda. Many artists make usage of their art to raise awareness for themes of social justice. Dating back to the Harlem Renaissance, James Van Der Zee did such a thing, capturing the Harlem community, and paving the way for other artists and distributors to come. Photographer Gordon Parks came soon after, following in the legacy. Currently, Instagram influencer, Antwaun Sargent, distributes art representative of the black community to over fifty-thousand individuals, continuing the use of photographs to spread social consciousness.


Due to quickly overdeveloping the white community in upper Manhattan during the late 1800s, there were many available living spaces without inhabitants. Simultaneously, the Great Migration occurred in the early 1900s as a large number of black people came to the North from the South. This was partly due to lack of work in the south, with the sharecropping method coming to an end. Once in the North, many families were drawn to the available living spaces in the Harlem area. The concentration of the black community in this area caused a rejection of Harlem, and the area was no longer granted the generalization of an upper-class destination. While racism prevented the “American Dream� for these specific Americans, many were poor, and the isolation of the area by New York City caused poor living conditions. This being said, an emergence of creative expression took over, and the 1920s became known as the Harlem Renaissance. The area was able to create beauty in a state of financial ruin (History.com Staff, 1).


“Being an artist, I had an artist’s instincts. You can see the picture before it’s taken; then it’s up to you to get the camera to see.” – James Van Der Zee


In 1886, James Van Der Zee was born in Lenox, Massachusetts on the 29th of June. He acted as a photographer for his school (Biography.com Staff, 2). At the age of twenty, Van Der Zee and his brother, Walter, left Lenox, Massachusetts in pursuit of Harlem, New York. A year later, he got married to a woman by the name of Kate Brown. The two left Harlem and went to Virginia. It was here that James Van Der Zee began his profession as a photographer. He worked specifically for the Hampton Institute. After eight years of marriage, the two ended their relationship as husband and wife (Biography.com Staff, 3). Upon returning to Harlem in the year, 1909, James began working in a darkroom for a photographer. It was around this time that Van Der Zee made his definite decision to become a photographer. His first studio was on West 135th Street, which he opened in the year 1916 (Smithsonian Art Museum, 1).


His goal in photography was to capture the Harlem community. He captured low-key gatherings such as school and church events, as well as weddings. This being said, he also dealt with higher profile events representative of black pride. Examples of this were the singer Florence Mills’ funeral, and multiple of black nationalist Marcus Garvey’s parades. It was not until the year that he retired, 1969, that the Metropolitan Museum of Art featured his photography, causing many people to take notice of his work. He remained retired as there was no longer an audience for his work, due to the fact that cameras were more readily accessible, and this form of artwork could be achieved by anyone with a camera. He ended his retirement only three years before his death (Smithsonian Art Museum, 2). It is said that his work was celebratory of the black community found in Harlem. His work allowed the black community to view themselves as the center of society, like the white community could regularly (Smithsonian Art Museum, 4).


Arguably, James Van Der Zee just strove to create a photographical environment that celebrated black pride, and worked to provide the same frivolous services of photography that were offered to white Americans. This being said, there are differing opinions regarding avoidance of exploitation. It is said that due to the common exploitation of black culture at the time of the Harlem Renaissance, for example in the music industry, Van Der Zee avoided portraying black citizens in his photography in anything other than a cultured light (Eye Candy, 1). You do not see how black Americans are generally photographed as. These photographs do not show anyone who is in need of help, or down on their luck, but beautiful, pride-filled characters (Scholastic, 1).


A prominent indication of social standing is due to the clothing we wear. By photographing a young black man in a tuxedo and bowtie, James Van Der Zee is giving this man some kind of implied social status, therefore strengthening the black community image. The young man in the photo looks clean-cut, reserved, yet happy as he has a slight smile on his face. You would never assume that this boy lived in the financially struggling area that was Harlem during the 1930s.

Van Der Zee, James Man with Bowtie, 1931


In 1939, Van Der Zee printed a similar eight by ten photograph titled, “Lady with Large Fur Collar� (Howard Greenberg, 1). Again, James Van Der Zee is portraying a black individual as being of high social standing and elegant through her clothing and the nature of the painting. His work truly served as an outlet for the black community to view themselves in a positive light, as that was not a reality in everyday media platforms of the time.

Van Der Zee, James Lady with Large Fur Collar, 1939


The photographs are very minimalistic, and clearly posed. He does not raise awareness through photographing poor living conditions in Harlem, or any struggles faced by the black community. His every day subjects just serve as celebration of people. In a time of racism and discrimination, these photos depict black citizens as being people, just like the white citizens are.


“I’d become sort of involved in things that were happening to people. No matter what color they be, whether they be Indians, or Negroes, the poor white person or anyone who was I thought more or less getting a bad shake.” – Gordon Parks


Shortly after James Van Der Zee’s photographic impact on Harlem life and societal normalcy took place, photographer Gordon Parks achieved success in documentation of humanitarian matters.


In the year 1912, Gordon Parks was born in Kansas. Viewing magazine images with the utmost wonder, Parks became fascinated with photography. He went to a pawnshop where he bought his first camera, and became a self-taught photographer. The Farm Security Administration at the time was creating documentation of social conditions in the United States of America. Parks was employed by the Farm Security Administration, until it closed in the year 1943 (Gordon Parks Foundation, 1).


Following his employment with the Farm Security Administration, Gordon Parks freelanced as a photographer. His two main focuses were the fashion industry, and his love in regard to capturing societal issues. In 1948, his personal project encapsulating a seventeen year old gang leader from Harlem, gained much public attention, and he was given the title of the first black staff photographer and writer for Life Magazine. He worked at Life magazine for around twenty years (Gordon Parks Foundation, 1).


“People in millenniums ahead will know what we were like in the 1930’s and the thing that, the important major things that shaped our history at that time. This is as important for historic reasons as any other.”– Gordon Parks


In his work, “Harlem Gang Leader�, an assignment for LIFE magazine in 1948, Parks introduced a gang leader who was only seventeen years of age to the public. He hoped to accomplish sending the message that all of the black teenagers who are given up on due to where they come from can be saved through means of social service agencies (Mason, 3).

Parks, Gordon Harlem Gang Leader, 1948


• Another work of his titled, “A Harlem Familyâ€?, told the story of many black families living in Harlem. He portrayed the Fontenelle family. This particular family struggled due to the poor living conditions, low status jobs, and poor education available. The photographs are truly sad to see as the father has lost himself in his failure to protect for his family, while the children huddle together for warmth (Mason, 4).

Parks, Gordon A Harlem Family, 1967


This being said, the limitations to James Van Der Zee and Gordon Parks’ work was the fact that cameras became too readily accessible by the public and therefore put them out of business. Our ability to own cameras has come such a long way as now we are able to take pictures with the same device that we make calls, draft texts, and even access the internet. The presence of social media in today’s culture allows for the ability to broadcast thoughts and images to a large audience. Specifically, Instagram serves the purpose that the Metropolitan Museum of Art once did for James Van Der Zee. We have art exhibits available are our fingertips. While Instagram is often used for superficial purposes as our self-worth is reliant on the number of likes that we got on our selfies, few have realized that it can be used as a platform for making a large population aware of social injustices. An individual who does so is Antwaun Sargent.


“I’m very interested in the power of black art, the power of black images, my own images but also in the possibility of painting, sculpture, photography and fashion complicating and extending black culture and its narratives.”– Antwaun Sargent


Antwaun Sargent utilizes Instagram as a vessel for social awareness. He reminds us that we all have the potential to showcase our cultural pride. He regularly posts photographs of either himself embracing his ethnic background, or artwork by other artists demonstrating black pride. His page is an art exhibit showcasing social justice accessible from one’s phone.

“@Sirsargent ● Instagram Photos and Videos.” Instagram, www.instagram.com/sirsargent/.


Originally from Chicago, Antwaun grew up in an area where black pride was celebrated through the many museums and overall cultural experience. His mother loved fashion, and he felt that his ability to wear designer clothes at a young age allowed him to understand the potential for his clothing to function as means of expression. It was during this time that he found his passion for making black artists more mainstream and well-known (Convicts Interview).


His work as a black art distributor is more similar to the work of James Van Der Zee than that of Gordon Parks. This is because Antwaun is not showcasing struggles within the black community directly, but giving attention to and celebrating the community, just as James Van Der Zee strove to do.

“@Sirsargent � Instagram Photos and Videos.� Instagram, www.instagram.com/sirsargent/.

While it is difficult to accept that unfair behavior is regularly demonstrated towards a person due to the color of their skin, it is a regular occurrence. In this day and age, we want to believe that we are so far past the racial stereotypes that once defined people, but we continue to generalize others based on their race.


An appreciator of art, as well as a writer himself, Antwaun Sargent utilizes his high social media standing on Instagram to celebrate his ethnic identity (Wagenknecht, 2). His page works to celebrate the art, since art as an institution has in the past silenced the voices of black people through isolation of race, and marginalization of the initial target audience (Wagenknecht, 4). His work as a black art distributor is more similar to the work of James Van Der Zee than that of Gordon Parks. This is because Antwaun is not showcasing struggles within the black community directly, but giving attention to and celebrating the community, just as James Van Der Zee strove to do.


The initial dismissal of an area due to the color of the inhabitants’ skin created an unwanted and under-cared for area. It was also a poor area due to the fact that those of black ethnicity were not granted with the same job opportunities as whites. However, through all of this hatred and suffering a period emerged of artistic celebration from all forms. We see through the usage of photography, individuals like James Van Der Zee paved the way for many to come after him, utilizing photographs as means of bettering the perception of the black community, or in Gordon Parks’ case, working to improve society itself through awareness. With the same advancements in modern technology that caused their business to cease to exist however, we are able to employ a new method of dispensing photography.


It is interesting that photography is more readily available, but does not serve the same purpose that it did in the past. Photography used to be an art form that served the purpose of making its audience think perceptively about society as a whole. We do not use social media as a platform for sharing views of improving public matters as much as we do for external validation. The presence of Antwaun Sargent on the social media scene is definitely a step towards something greater. He has an audience of over fifty-thousand followers, and while this is nothing to the many pages of “Instagram Models� who have millions, it is a continual process, as his goal of showcasing black artistic talent, celebrating black culture, and broadcasting black pride is very much present as it was when he first started his account. It is absurd however that something as little as being proud of your ethnicity, and therefore mentioning it on your social media page is so groundbreaking that there is continual news coverage with regard to the matter. There are articles continuously written about Sargent’s social beliefs, and his views on Instagram as a platform. The concept of black pride through this media is so unfamiliar, that his work is viewed as groundbreaking, as opposed to ordinary.


We should encourage people not to shy away from presenting their own ethnic pride on their social media platforms. Everyone should be celebrated regardless of the color of their skin, and if this love can be spread through the community, it will not be as “shocking� that Antwaun Sargent posts photos representative of his black pride.


Works Cited History.com Staff. “Harlem Renaissance.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2009, www.history.com/topics/black-history/harlem-renaissance. “James VanDerZee.” Smithsonian American Art Museum, americanart.si.edu/artist/james-vanderzee-6593. “Artist.” Gordon Parks Foundation, www.gordonparksfoundation.org/artists. “How LIFE Photographer Gordon Parks Documented Black Humanity.” Time, Time, time.com/4200148/Gordon-parks-photographs-black-humanity/. “James Van Der Zee.” Howard Greenberg Gallery, www.howardgreenberg.com/artists/james-van-der-zee?view=slider#5. “James Van Der Zee.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 2 Apr. 2014, www.biography.com/people/james-van-der-zee-9515411. “James Van Der Zee: Documenter of 1920s Harlem.” Scholastic, www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/james-van-der-zee-documenter-1920s-harlem/. “PHOTOGRPAHY: James Van Der Zee (1886-1983), A Completely Great Eye.” AFROPUNK, 19 Oct. 2015, Afropunk.com/2015/10/photography-james-van-der-zee-1886-1983-a-completely-great-eye/. Wagenknecht, Addie. “Antwaun Sargent On The Power Of Contemporary Black Art Now.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 13 Mar. 2018, www.forbes.com/sites/addiewagenknecht/2018/03/13/antwaun-sargent-on-the-power-of-contemporaryblack-art-now/#7988b24b5ff7.

Themes of the Harlem Renaissance Captured Photographically and Present Today  

A look at how photographs originally celebrating black culture in Harlem, by James Van Der Zee, has evolved into a modern world of image sha...

Themes of the Harlem Renaissance Captured Photographically and Present Today  

A look at how photographs originally celebrating black culture in Harlem, by James Van Der Zee, has evolved into a modern world of image sha...

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