Repetition through Photography: James Van Der Zee and the Making of African Diasporic Visual Culture and Artistic Practice.

Dissertation Summary

How did photographs circulating among black subjectsin the United States and abroad during the early twentieth century shape an understanding of black subjectivity at that time and then again in decades later? I answer this question through my dissertation’s focus on James Van Der Zee, a prolific studio photographer in Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s whose images have come to visually define a contemporary understanding of Harlem’s past. Ultimately, I argue that we miss the evolving significance of Van Der Zee’s work if we fail to ask how and why his early photographs have circulated and told changing narratives about black subjectivity through a range of visual and material forms, along with more contemporary artistic iterations. My approach is mindful of the photographs as objects. By this, I refer to the photo calendars, advertisements, postcard photographs, and photographic multiples that left Van Der Zee’s studios with his clients.

As other scholars have insisted, portraits by Van Der Zee capture how black individuals self-fashioned their own modern representation through photography. However, to not consider the implications of the material form of the portrait is to miss an important clue in understanding how these images made their impact on black subjectivity through circulation and their translation into different kinds of visual practices. By doing so, I show how photographs originating in early twentieth century Harlem function in complex ways beyond the place and time of their making.


Emilie Boone is currently a doctoral candidate in the Department of Art History at Northwestern University. She has a Master’s in Art History from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri and a B.A. in English from Amherst College in Massachusetts. She has written forHistory of Photography,African Arts, the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) in Chicago, and the Kemper Art Museum St. Louis, Missouri. Her honors include a Fulbright, a Terra Foundation Residency in Giverny, France and a Dangler Curatorial Fellowship at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2011 and 2013, Emilie was an invited participant of the Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She presently lives in the Washington D.C. area where she is enjoying her time as a 2013-2015 Pre-doctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, National Portrait Gallery.