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On the Town

James VanDerZee ( 1886–1983) On the Town, 1929 Gelatin silver print 6 1/2 × 4 1/2 in. The Studio Museum in Harlem; gift of The Sandor Family Collection, Chicago 2000.11.3

Moving to New York in 1906, James VanDerZee became a sought-after photographer in the 1920s, capturing the elegance of his primarily middle-class black subjects through the use of intricate props and backdrops. Here, the illusionistic backdrop of a dignified parlor combined with the man’s crisp white tuxedo and top hat suggest he is on his way to a fashionable banquet or club. The image exemplifies VanDerZee’s fondness for Victorian painting tradition, where artists would present sitters in the foreground of whimsical and decorative environments.