Monday, October 5, 2020

African American Snapshots, James Van Der Zee, an Original Print?

For the last year or so I have been a pretty casual collector of snapshot images and related photographic ephemera. I initially started this many years ago through casual browsing of antique stores and junk shops throughout rural South Carolina. After coming back home from school early due to COVID, I was left with quite a lot of free time and very little motivation to go out and make pictures. Instead, I took up this quasi-image making by buying other peoples photographs on eBay. This curation seemed to largely satisfy my attachment to photos, photo history, etc..

After about 2 or 3 months of this I came to the realization — partially due to the racial reckoning of 2020 — that my collection contained not a single photograph of an African American or person of color (at least not immediately discernible). The next logical step was to search for African American photographs. This was made easy by the evident labeling as "African American" of the comparatively few snapshots that were listed.

When searching for "snapshot" under collectible images on eBay, refined by "original print," I am yielded 281,695. When doing the same for "african american," I am yielded a mere 2,387 results. When I narrow my search even further by selecting "Vintage & Antique (Pre-1940)", only 572 results. As my collection is made up of primarily pre-1940's photographs, I have an incredibly small pool to work with. This is nice for searching the overall pool but reflects the incredible lack of early 20th century vernacular images of African American domestic life.

So far I have only discussed this briefly with my professor who focuses on topics of race and the American Civil war. Though, I hope to focus more on this topic for a thesis or more expansive essay.


A few weeks ago while searching for AA snapshots, I came across a listing of a photo from a black wedding in 1926. I was immediately interested because of 1) the subject matter 2) period and 3) size of the image. After a little research I discovered the image was by James Van Der Zee, a prominent Harlem Renaissance photographer. The seller, from New York, had very little information about the print and I could find only one very low resolution copy online.

The general aging and paper quality has me optimistic this is an original print by the artist or from the original negative. While I am optimistic I won't get my hopes too high. Either way this is an incredible image and I am excited to have a copy of it. I plan on reaching out to the Howard Greenberg Gallery, who is the authority on Van Der Zee, in the near future to assess the find.

As always, hope you enjoyed this one.

All the best,

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