Off-Topic Tuesday, or, Harlem before Starbucks, the Disney Store; Ben and Jerry’s

On occasion I have posted images of the stylized, elegant pictures depicting the Harlem Renaissance as captured by famed photographer James Vanderzee (1886-1983).   Harlem during its Renaissance had the likes of Langston Hughes, James Baldwin,  Dorothy West, Richard Wright, Claude Mckay, and Margaret Walker to serve as resident wordsmiths to chronicle the Harlem that was and will always be the Black Cultural Mecca of the World.  Through their poetry and novels we as mere observers and readers of history are allowed to walk the famed boulevards of Harlem of old in our “Sunday best.”  We are able to taste the sweet and savory chicken and waffles of Wells Restaurant and we can hear the big band swing of music royalty– The Duke and The Count— as we stomp at the Savoy.

If  Hughes, Baldwin, Walker, Wright, McKay, Walker, Ellington and Basie captured the spoken words and lyrical sounds of  Harlem, than James Vanderzee, through his  portraits, indeed captured the sights, beauty, harmony and essence of Harlem during that same period.  His photographic works of art showcased  middle and upper class Harlem residents at home, at work and at play–everyday scenes of Harlem life.  Nothing out of the ordinary. For Harlem residents of that time were well aware of the achievements, dignity and glamour of its neighbors–the  neighbors–politicians, singers, actors, writers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors, civil servants, school teachers and street cleaners.  Vanderzee captured it all:  Funerals, weddings, social events, celebrities and family portraits.  From 1907-1954, Vanderzee chronicled life in Harlem.  

After decades of creating art through his camera lens, Mr. Vanderzee’s photographs were “discovered” by New York’s downtown  Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The photos were featured in a 1969 exhibit entitled Harlem on My Mind.  The exhibit exposed the world to not only the genius of Vanderzee’s work but it also exposed the world to the beauty, talent, and achievement of Harlem during its true, original heyday.

My parents attended the opening of the exhibit.  And subsequently purchased the companion book to the exhibit, Harlem On My Mind–One summer day in the late 1970’s my mother and I happened by an elderly, rather portly, dignified man sitting on a chair outside of  a photo studio on a Harlem grand boulevard.  My mother engaged the grandfatherly man in a conversation and the next thing I know we were given a private tour of James Vanderzee’s studio by Mr. Vanderzee himself! 

Today the book, Harlem on My Mind, sits grandly on my living room’s coffee table, Vanderzee original photographs are safe in my mother’s care and it is my sincere hope that  Harlem during its “new birth”  will retain its true character, its history and its decades- old residents.


 I apologize for the small images.   I do implore you to steep a cup of green tea or pour a glass of your favorite wine  turn on your computer and get lost in Mr. Vanderzee’s prolific portfolio.  And ENJOY!

COPYRIGHT 2011.  The Recovering Attorney Un-Blog(tm).  All Rights Reserved.  And I will sue.  Ha!

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