During James VanDerZee's twenty-year tenure as Harlem's premier photographer,
he witnessed many important social and political events that had great impact on
the community, one of which was the First World War. The advent of World War I
saw African Americans called to service in record numbers. VanDerZee's portraits
of war heroes and soldiers serve to document the Harlemites' participation in this
global crisis. Roberts and Johnson is the second double portrait VanDerZee
shot of Needham Roberts and Henry Johnson, two decorated war heroes.
VanDerZee first photographed them in 1920, after their triumphant return to
Harlem from Europe as part of the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the
Harlem Hellfighters. Depicted wearing their medals in a signature VanDerZee
interior, they are the embodiment of pride and patriotism. VanDerZee's treatment
of blacks who participated in World War I pays tribute to a group of patriots whose
service went unrecognized for decades. This photo is an example of how VanDerZee
used photomontage to add a sentimental or dramatic dimension to the image, a
technique he frequently employed. Although the photograph was dated 1916, this
image clearly postdates the 1920 photo of the young soldiers just back from the war
and, according to Deborah Willis-Braithwaite, was probably made in 1932, when
VanDerZee photographed Needham Roberts alone.
A. L. C.