Posed on a residential street in Harlem, New York, this stylish couple is cocooned in signifiers of success: their luxurious automobile, his-and-hers raccoon coats, and serene expressions together create a powerful aura of contentment. Their Cadillac V-16, a top-of-the-line model sold from 1930 to 1940, is the star of the picture. Both expensive and exclusive—only about four thousand were made—each car came with a chassis customized for its owner. The lustrous paint and gleaming chrome of this convertible exemplify the couple’s wealth and security, rarities in the United States during the Great Depression.
Van Der Zee was the most successful portrait photographer working in Harlem in the 1920s and ’30s. During that period, known as the Harlem Renaissance, scores of people settled in this Manhattan neighborhood, which served as a center of black culture in the United States. Here they found like-minded cosmopolitan urbanites who wanted to record their material comforts, social allegiances, and significant life events through photography. While many sitters had their pictures taken in Van Der Zee’s well-accessorized studio, other clients requested that the photographer come to their houses, churches, or schools to document weddings, baptisms, sports leagues, and social organizations. The handsome pair captured here looks wholly at home on West 127th Street. From the shimmer of her shoes to the line of light bouncing off his hat brim, every detail of their image exudes polish and prosperity.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)