Famed photographer James Van Der Zee, 96, whose detailed portraits of daily life in Harlem, made over decades, are prized as both art and history, died here yesterday, the day after receiving an honorary degree from Howard University.
Mr. Van Der Zee, whose camera captured the physical expressions and internal essence of sports figures, political leaders, celebrities and thousands of ordinary citizens, was taken early yesterday morning from the Howard Inn, where he was staying, to nearby Howard University Hospital.
He died there about 2:30 a.m. of cardiac arrest.
From the carefully composed images of six decades of Harlem life compiled by Mr. Van Der Zee came 90 percent of the visual material used in the noted 1969 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition "Harlem On My Mind." The pictures catapulted Mr. Van Der Zee to fame.
The honorary degree of doctor of humane letters that he received from Howard Saturday was his fourth such academic honor, and Mr. Van Der Zee, whose subjects had included Marcus Garvey, Adam Clayton Powell Sr., Muhammad Ali and Eubie Blake, was honored for his achievements by President Carter at the White House in 1979.
Mr. Van Der Zee was born in Lenox, Mass., where his parents had moved in 1883 after working in New York City as butler and maid to retired President Ulysses S. Grant.
Trained as a boy in both music and art, he became skilled at the piano and on the violin. But painting lessons frustrated him, because, he said, "I never got the faces right." Before long he had his first camera. It never worked right, but the second one, which cost eight dollars, started him on a long career.
He moved to New York, and before the end of World War I, he opened a Harlem photo studio. Through its doors for more than 50 years the famous came for their portraits and his conversation, and the less well known came to commemorate special occasions.
Meanwhile, he also took to the streets to investigate and immortalize almost every aspect of life in Harlem, shooting funerals and weddings, sidewalk scenes and interiors, parades and passersby.
In 1969 with studio business declining, partly as a result of photographic improvements that put so many sophisticated cameras in the hands of the public, he stopped making photographs.
In 1980, in his 90s, and after enduring a period of financial privation, he resumed taking pictures.
"I do my work now on the installment plan," the Manhattan resident said.
He is survived by his wife, Donna.