James VanDerZee is a perfect subject for a picture book, since his love of art and creation of photographic portraits defined his life. The acrylic on canvas illustrations show key scenes from his life in warm colors and also capture samples of his iconic style of photography. In an era when few people owned a camera, James understood its power to tell a story and preserve a memory that would be treasured for a lifetime. The methods James used, such as taking the time to get his subjects to relax and smile naturally for the camera, retouching photos to bring out the best and minimize flaws, and even using photomontage to layer images, set him apart from other photographers. But what made him of special interest to history was his interest in picturing the life of middle class people in Harlem. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Harlem on My Mind" exhibit showcased the best of his 75,000 photos and 40 years of the history of Harlem, as well as portraits of celebrities such as Florence Mills and Joe Louis. Historians are fortunate that VanDerZee was present during the Harlem Renaissance to preserve the era on film.
The text and illustrations work well together to show the passion James felt for his art and to explain what set him apart from other photographers of his time. The changing times can be seen in the clothing, setting, and even the aging of VanDerZee himself. The book also includes a bibliography, suggestions for further reading, reproductions of a few of his iconic photos, and even a list of which photos some of the illustrations were based on. This is a wonderful example of a picture book biography and perfect for units on the Harlem Renaissance, artists, or Black History Month.
I read an e-book provided by the publisher through edelweiss.