The bulk of Van Der Zee’s work consists of portraits that are sensitive, respectful and warmly understanding of his subjects. These portraits and his documentation of social events around Harlem in the 1920s have tremendous historical and artistic significance. His studio portraits represent an incredible repertoire of poses and settings, often affected with painted backdrops, which he created himself. There is rarely an unflattering portrait in his body of work. His idealism is manifested in his prints as well. Almost all of his prints have been retouched to create a more beautiful image of his sitter.
Van Der Zee was born in Lenox, Massachusetts where his music and art were an important part of his family life. His interest in photography began in 1900 when he won a small camera outfit. By 1916 he had opened his first studio in Harlem. He was an Honorary Fellow for life of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and was the recipient of the International Black Photographers Award and the Living Legacy Award both presented by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. He also received the Pierre Touissaint Award in 1978, presented by Cardinal Cooke at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.