Among the many aspects of Harlem life that VanDerZee captured on film, he is perhaps most noted for his studio portraits. Individuals from all walks of life came to VanDerZee’s studio to be photographed by the most popular image-maker in Harlem. VanDerZee’s use of props, garments, and elaborate backdrops enabled him to construct an atmosphere around the sitter that could enhance the image of the individual or create an entirely new identity. Barefoot Prophet of 1929 is a photograph of Elder Clayhorn Martin (1851-1937), also known as Prophet Martin and the Barefoot Prophet, an eccentric street preacher. VanDerZee constructs a serious image of this well-known Harlem character by depicting him contemplating the Bible and surrounded by the traditional religious symbols of the crucifix and the Virgin Mary. However, his unconventional style is revealed by the inclusion of a tambourine under his chair and his notorious bare feet.
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