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The Photograph is a sweeping exploration of the power of positive imaging of black identity in Harlem, New York City. A hundred years after his grandfather Filmmaker Sherman De Jesus travels to New York. The picture of his grandfather, made hundred years ago by now renowned African-American photographer James Van Der Zee, leads the filmmaker back to Harlem, where he explores the visibility of the residents of this New York borough.
A hundred years after his grandfather Filmmaker Sherman De Jesus travels to New York. The reason for his journey is the only photograph that he has of his grandfather: a stately, vitiated black & white portrait of Juan De Jesus, a black man dressed in a slightly frayed white Tropical suit. With a mixed look of excitement and pride, Juan De Jesus stares back at us, drawing us back into a moment nearly hundred years ago, to a world that rendered him invisible merely because of the color of his skin. A stamp on the back leads to the Harlem based studio of the legendary Afro-American photographer James Van Der Zee. In Harlem black migrants from the Southern States and from the Caribbean gave a vigorous voice to the “New Negro” with swinging jazz, art, literature and ideology. This was the world of James Van Der Zee who from his photo studio captured all aspects of life in Harlem. A forgotten period in which a proud and diverse black community becomes visible. It isn’t until fifty years later that his work is discovered by the Metropolitan Museum. Black celebrities such as Muhammed Ali and Jean-Michel Basquiat have their pictures taken by the then 86-year old photographer. Works by Van Der Zee are bought in bulk by many a-list museums.
Nowadays it’s photographer Jamel Shabazz who, as a contemporary equivalent of James Van Der Zee, aims to portray the Harlem of today. Jazz has made way for hiphop, migrants from the Southern States are now immigrants from Africa an Harlem itself is threatened by Gentrification.
But the black individuality that VanderZee portrayed still exists. The film wanders along 125th Street and “Cent Seize” (116th Street) into the invisible world where contemporary and the historical Harlem melt together. We see the people of modern Harlem that give shape to the freedom, opportunities and riches that their forefathers found here. It is here that the Harlem Renaissance and the influence of Van Der Zee’s photography live on. The Photograph finds its apotheosis in Coney Island during the Tribute to the Ancestors Celebration, where New York's first slaves were brought ashore.