The Aesthetics and Politics of Stuff: James Van Der Zee’s Aspirational Portraiture


Key Jo Lee

NEW DATE: Wed, 11/15/2017 - 7:00pm (rescheduled from Wed, 11/08/2017)

A prominent figure in the history of photography, James Van Der Zee (1886–1983) dedicated his extensive career to creating images of African Americans that would undermine persistent derogatory depictions. During the Harlem Renaissance, his photographic portraits most often captured an urban, black elite, showcasing Harlem’s cosmopolitan set. In his portraits, jewels sparkle, shoes shine, and fashion dominates, suggesting that things are as important to an image’s meaning as the person donning them. The slick, beautiful images aren’t, however, neutral representations of people. Rather, they are both aesthetic and political objects within which the subjects become bound by their belongings. Close attention to minute details and compositional tensions reveals a new way of viewing these images. In this program, Key Jo Lee, assistant director of academic outreach, will host a guided close-looking session of two of Van Der Zee’s portraits on view in the exhibition From Riches to Rags: American Photography in the Depression. Together we will mine these works for richer meaning.