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Thursday, March 4, 2004 11:13 pm

Photographer captured Harlem’s heyday with taste and levity

“Do Tell” (1930), from “The James VanDerZee Studio”

African-American photographer James VanDerZee operated a portrait studio in Harlem from 1916 until 1982, chronicling the lives of residents and the Harlem Renaissance. His work is a wonderful document of middle-class African-American life. The Art Institute of Chicago has put together a fascinating collection of almost 100 of VanDerZee's black-and-white photographs, which are on display through April 25.

VanDerZee posed his subjects, both black and white residents of Harlem, in elaborately staged tableaus with heavy drapes, large potted plants, and Victorian furniture. He clearly wanted to show his clients at their best, and often positioned them in front of hand-painted backdrops. There are pictures of wedding parties, father and son portraits, groups like the Elks, Shriners, and Masons. There are portraits of musicians, like the Four Aces and West's Colored Syncopators, and even a tasteful nude. "Propriety Counts," a formal pose of a woman resting her arm on a baby grand piano, could be the theme of the show. VanDerZee sought to give his clients an air of respectability.

"Do Tell," a fetching hand-colored portrait of a beautiful young woman in a satin dress, ready for a night on the town, graces the cover of the accompanying 36-page book published by the Art Institute. VanDerZee often hand-colored his portraits and retouched his negatives and prints. Though the pictures are formal and posed, there is plenty of levity in his work. The same painted cardboard cocker spaniel appears as a prop in several photographs, and some of the pictures are just goofy, like the one with the words "merry Xmas" emanating from the smoke of a sitter's cigar. VanDerZee wasn't shy about writing on his negatives or using multiple negatives to create collages.

Most of the photos are from the 1920s through the 1940s, but one surprise is a beautiful portrait of the avant-garde painter Jean-Michel Basquiat in suit jacket and paint-spattered jeans from 1982.

In the gallery adjacent to the VanDerZee exhibit is "Hot Streaks," work by six photographers in the Art Institute's impressive photography collection. Black and white photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Brassai, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Alfred Steiglitz, and Julia Margaret Cameron are a nice complement to VanDerZee's work.

"The James VanDeZee Studio," Gallery 1 of the Art Institute of Chicago. Through April 25. Admission to the Art Institute is free on Tuesdays; otherwise, $10 for adults, $6 students. In conjunction with the exhibit, the Art Institute offers the book The James VanDerZee Studio for $10.

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