Couple in Raccoon Coats

Photograph by James VanDerZee

I always wanted people to look good, to look the way they wanted to look.

James VanDerZee

Couple in Raccoon Coats

  • James VanDerZee
  • 1932

To many white Americans in the 1930s, black people were little more than domestics or sharecroppers. They were ignored, invisible, forgotten. But that was not what James VanDerZee saw when he gazed through his camera lens. Seeking to counter the degrading and widely disseminated caricatures of ­African Americans in popular culture, VanDerZee not only photographed Harlem weddings, funerals, clubs and families but also chronicled the likes of black nationalist Marcus Garvey, dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and the poet Countee ­Cullen—the leaders, artists, writers, movers and strivers of the Harlem Renaissance. In his Guarantee Photo Studio and along the neighborhood’s streets, VanDerZee crafted portraits that were meticulously staged to celebrate the images his subjects wanted to project. And nowhere is this pride more evident than in his glowing picture of a handsome couple sporting raccoon coats beside a Cadillac roadster. The swish backdrop—props curated by ­VanDerZee—challenged popular perceptions about race, class and success and became an aspirational model for generations of African Americans yearning for a full piece of the American Dream.

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