James VanDerZee, Escape Artist, 1924

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From the ICP Collection:

This studio portrait shows a man dressed in modern attire but clad in shackles from neck to feet. The man is most likely a magician or escape artist like Harry Houdini or Black Herman, both popular performers when this photograph was taken. But the sight of a black man in chains standing in the splendor of African American photographer James VanDerZee’s studio creates an image that is more complicated than a standard promotional photo. VanDerZee was one of the most successful photographers in Harlem, in part because he shared the racial pride of his sitters and always strove to create elegant yet idealized portraits. He documented everything and everyone in the neighborhood, from the emerging black middle class to celebrities of the Harlem Renaissance, from community gatherings and weddings to funerals.