“I really can't think of a peer that has had that type of long-term engagement with one place,” Boone says. “And so even though the people of Harlem are changing over the decades, Van Der Zee is still there. And even his four studios—he would open one and close it and then open another one—were all within a few blocks. He never moves far—he is the epitome of a neighborhood studio photographer.”
NYU News spoke with Boone about Van Der Zee’s significance in documenting 20th-century New York, as well as the larger, and perhaps underappreciated, artistic impact of his work.
You write about how Van Der Zee’s photographs illuminate the richness of Black daily life—“the ordinary as part of the extraordinary,” as you describe it. How did he do that in his studio?
To begin to talk about Van Der Zee, we can start with the type of business he had. It was a commercial photography studio. As opposed to other photographers of the era, who were going out with their cameras and creating photographs in the name of art for their own purposes, Van Der Zee was doing something that bridged an artistic project with a practical service. He had ordinary individuals coming into his studio. It was a storefront studio so many of his customers were those who were living in the neighborhood and just kind of passing by. But some of them were return visitors and some of them were people who had traveled to Harlem, either from other parts of Manhattan or from all over the world.