James Augustus Joseph Van Der Zee (American, 1886–1983)
vintage gelatin silver print
8 in. x 10 1/16 in. (20.32 cm x 25.56 cm)
Museum Purchase, Lloyd O. and Marjorie Strong Coulter Fund, 2003.13.9.
James Van Der Zee made it his mission to capture the beauty of Black life in New York City. Whether documenting glamorous couples on the streets of Harlem or creating handsome portraits of citizens in his studio, he was committed to the visual documentation of the city. His photographs often reveal Black middle-class life, including this portrait of Josephine Becton in her lavish Harlem apartment. Seated at her piano with several large flower bouquets and a heart-shaped box of chocolates, Becton appears at home in her surroundings. She was widely known and well-respected in the African American community because of her husband, who was a famous minister and leader of the World Gospel Feast Party, Inc. This photograph was taken a year after his kidnapping and murder, but Josephine continued to carry on his religious legacy. Images of middle-class life countered views of impoverished African Americans that were prevalent in the work of photojournalists prior to and throughout this period.