"One time I dreamed I went to make a picture of a dead woman who reached in her chest and took out her heart and threw it over here, then she reached in there and took out something else and threw it over there. I just waited to see if she was going to take something else...but I wasn't scared or nothing like that in the dream." James VanDerZee, from the book The Harlem Book Of The Dead.
James VanDerZee, legendary African American photographer, is primarily remembered for his striking Harlem Renaissance-era portraits of the 1920's and 30's. In his hey-day, VanDerZee captured the images of some of the most beautiful, beloved and now iconic personalities of the day. But his career as a photographer lasted over six decades as he documented the lives of the common, everyday working class denizens of Harlem U.S.A. He was also favored for his photography skills among the newly dead! After many years of quiet and repose, James VanDerZee finally experienced his own personal renaissance that actually began in 1969 when he became the largest single contributor to the Metropolitian Museum of Art exhibition "Harlem On My Mind." With renewed interest in his career, more than a few books were published as retrospectives of his work. Among them, The Harlem Book Of The Dead, a strange, now out-of-print, 85-page collection of vintage past-post mortem photographs boasted "a very long" very stiff interview with the photographer by artist Camille Billops, and the inclusion of the very lifeless poetry of Owen Dodson.
The top photo is one that VanDerZee took at the funeral of his own 16 year old daughter, Rachel VanDerZee. Note the super-imposed images in the top right & left hand corners; a VanDerZee trademark. On the left, you'll see a smaller photograph of the deceased in her lively youth. Young Miss VanDerZee passed away in 1927.
If The Harlem Book Of The Dead doesn't seem quite complete as a collection, the book remains a classic! And it's always the photographs that matter! I should know! We'd all die to get my hands on a now lost family photograph of one of my grandfather's wives, Charlotte. She died in childbirth and the baby died a day later! There was a double funeral and someone photographed both of them laying in the casket. I am hoping that one day it will turn up as later generations of family members have always heard about but never seen this photo. Among VanDerZee's funereal photos, there were many taken of babies! It was very common to have a portrait done of a deceased baby or child to forever commemorate and pay tribute to their memory for years to come. VanDerZee explained "Most of these babies, they all died of pneumonia; chest gets filled up with colds because they were living in cold (water) flats. It was a very common thing in those days for people to be without heat". He went on to describe the second 1930's photo here with "the reason for having the father hold the child was that the mother was sick in the hospital and couldn't get out. The child died in the meantime. If it wasn't for the picture, the mother wouldn't have seen the child for the last time".
Things would get even more personal when my father passed away! When my brother came back, he brought his family, and a lot of grief with him. He also brought a lot of ostentatious camera equipment that nobody knew about until the wake. Brotha starts settin' up, and I'm like "OH! NO, HE'S NOT!" I wasn't the only one who was appalled, but I was the one who went ballistic. My mother, now a widow after 52 years of marriage, was the only one who could settle the dispute. "Let him do it, but we better not ever see them" she whispered. To keep the peace, my mother allowed her oldest son to photograph her dead husband in his casket. While I thought it quite bizarre at the time, my brother may have unwittingly created another family photograph that will become even more legendary as the years and generations pass.
A caption from the book describes this 1926 photo with "She was the one I think was shot by her sweetheart at a party with a noiseless gun. She complained of being sick at the party.....and they taken her in the room and laid her down. After they undressed her and loosened her clothes, they saw the blood on her dress. They asked her about it and she said "I'll tell you tomorrow, yes, I'll tell you tomorrow. She was just trying to give him a chance to get away."
James VanDerZee told Camille Billops that his grandfather was a gravedigger in Lenox, Massachusettes, and how as a child he used to hear stories of how, oftentimes, the coffins would have to be moved from one place to another. When they were opened, his grandfather would be astonished to find that sometimes the bodies would be in different positions or even turned over completely in their caskets. He suggested that during that time, some of the "deceased" weren't altogether dead when they were buried. Not too many people were being embalmed then, and some of them were only just sick and in comas, but buried as dead anyway. He remembered the "dead" sitting up in caskets and the undertakers being so frightened, they'd jump out the windows. VanDerZee explained that the old saying "You'd steal the pennies off a dead man's eyes" was coined when the undertakers would use pennies on the eyelids of the deceased to keep their eyes closed. I don't even want to think about where the term "She'd turn over in her own grave" came from!
She was never captured on film! Her voice was never recorded! Just two of the factors why, with each successive generation, Florence Mills always remains on the verge of being forgotten. Yet, there's something in the collective consciousness of black America that refuses to totally forget her. In the Twenties, she was the biggest star! Period! She conquered home and all of Europe, too! Famous authors like Evelyn Waugh included her as characters in some of their most well-known books! She was the first Negro woman to appear in the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair! Her voice was high and birdlike. She was a small, petite woman with a winsome, wide-eyed beauty. Known as The Little Blackbird, she was most effervescent on stage with her high-kickin', tireless and high octane performances. Harlem was home to Mills, and there she reigned as The Queen. Imagine the horror, when after a grueling, whirlwind tour of England, Mills returned home gravely ill with appendicitis. Her death, a month later, set off an outpouring of love and grief, memory and flowers, affection and music that Harlem had ever seen. Her body lay in state for a week in the chapel of the Howell Undertaking Parlors at 137th & Seventh Ave., and her funeral at Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church attracted an estimated 5000 mourners. Numerous accounts suggest that at least 150,000 people lined the streets outside while hundreds of blackbirds were released by helicopter above. Mills was photographed by some of the most famous photographers in the world, but her VanDerZee portraits are the ones that remain the most well-known. As in life, he also captured her in death, too! Oddly enough, none of the Mills photographs appear in The Harlem Book Of The Dead, but in the plate above we see a super-imposed image of Miss Mills looking through the window at her own corpse "in a way that suggests both the liberation of the soul and the contemplation of mortality".
Please consider the additonal photo included here of the man laying on his bed. "To make this dead gentleman look more natural, his family wanted the paper put in his hand, to make it appear he had been reading and had just dozed off" says VanDerZee. If you look very closely, you'll see he would have been reading the headline news on the death of Florence Mills! Perhaps he died of grief!
Photographing a deceased person was a common practice in the 19th & early 20th century, and James VanDerZee put as much pride and artistry in his photographs of the dead as he did in those of his living subjects. Early photographers from the late Victorian and Edwardian era often posed their mortuary subjects with cemetary artifacts or surrounded by boquets of flowers. VanDerZee was influenced by this tradition, but most definitely put a art deco, avant-garde spin of his own in many of his images of the dead. Looking back, we find that past post-mortem photographs make up the largest collective group of 19th-century American photographs, but this particular form of photography is no longer popular, and is now even frowned upon. Much of that attitude may have to do with how we now struggle to avoid the topic of death and loss. Such power many of these photos hold! The dead are shown posed alonside the living "as though life and death were inseperable siblings" while small children and babies are elaborately dressed and shown laying in cribs and in the arms of their parents. In viewing these types of portraits, we are compelled to confront our own mortality issues and aversions. When I first got the idea for this post, I was like "eww" and I approached the photos with a mixture of fascination and no small degree of queasiness. But now, I'm able to look at them and see the beauty in them as I would any other photo! My father's death was 12 years ago, and in preparing this blogpost, I'm thinking I'm not all that opposed to seeing (maybe even owning) a copy of that photograph my brother took.
James VanDerZee died in 1983 at the age of ninety-six. Before his death, he created another photographic collection of famous African Americans including the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat. But his reputation and memory rests during that wonderful period when Harlem was in vogue! Indeed! One can almost imagine stepping out of a brownstone on 125th & St. Nicholas on a cold, dreary depressing morning, reluctantly looking up at a gray sky, and right as the first bolt of lightening strikes, one is struck by the thought "What a lovely day for a funeral! I think I'll call Mr. VanDerZee".