November 15, 1993 12:00 PM

Photographs by James VanDerZee

In 1917, when James VanDerZee opened his photo studio in Harlem, the neighborhood was just becoming the great proving ground of black urban life in America, a place where African-Americans of all classes converged to be somewhere while getting somewhere. The people in VanDerZee’s pictures—matrons of Harlem society, soldiers back from World War I, newlyweds and drag queens, high school orchestras and softball teams—wanted to see themselves in the bright trappings of the middle classes that they had entered or were struggling toward.

VanDerZee, whose work is currently on exhibit in a major retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, gave his sitters something more, a memento of their dreams about themselves. The young woman in My Corsage (1931) is not just dressed for a dance but costumed to meet the Jazz Age. VanDerZee’s objective was to present daily events of black life in terms of American life generally: valentines, wedding albums, baby pictures and funeral cards. In the process he made poignant images in which the people of Harlem appear as neighbors, family and friends—as citizens, not as mug shots or poster images for the war on poverty.

Poverty wasn’t an overwhelming problem in Harlem for most of VanDerZee’s career. But by the 1950s middle-class blacks were moving out and depriving the photographer of his usual clientele. He and his wife, Gaynella, were old and destitute by 1968, when he was rediscovered by Reginald McGhee, a young photographer who was working on an exhibition, Harlem on My Mind., at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum. Before his death at age 96 in 1983, VanDerZee found a modest living as a portraitist, but this time for the likes of Bill Cosby, Muhammad Ali and Miles Davis. He posed them all in an ornate wooden side chair that had appeared in some of his earliest studio shots. It could stand for the Harlem that had vanished—or would have if VanDerZee hadn’t kept it for us in these evocative pictures. (Abrams, $39.95)

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