Object Lesson: James Van Der Zee photographs of Daddy Grace and Rabbi Mordecai Herman

Between World Wars I and II, James Van Der Zee was one of the most popular photographers in Harlem, New York. Known primarily for his portraits, Van Der Zee also worked for a wide range of clients outside of his studio, including a variety of Harlem’s diverse faith communities. Daddy Grace, born Marcelino Manuel de Graca, founded the United House of Prayer for All People in 1919. As leader of this independent Christian church, Grace became well-known for his charismatic style of evangelism and stories of faith healing. Mordecai Herman oversaw the Moorish Zionist Temple, one of the earliest Black Hebrew groups in New York. Believing they were descendants of the biblical Israelites, members of this Temple fused traditional Jewish and Christian elements with early Pan-African nationalism.

Both of these pictures show off Van Der Zee’s virtuosity and creativity as a photographer. He captures Rabbi Herman leading a service through his temple’s window, famed by Hebrew lettering and American and Israeli flags. The yellow that remains in the center, is from where Van Der Zee (or an employee) hand-colored the candles and lightbulb inside the window. Daddy Grace is a fine example of Van Der Zee’s use of compound negatives. Here, he photographed a biblical illustration separately and then overlaid that negative with his portrait of Grace, printing them as one seemingly magical image, that likely enhanced Grace’s legend.

Brian Piper, Mellon Foundation Assistant Curator for Photography

Many photographs from NOMA’s permanent collection are featured in Looking Again: Photography at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA and Aperture, 2018). PURCHASE NOW

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