Pairing Picture Books and Primary Sources: Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee!

As we work with written primary sources, we may ask students to identify the perspective of the author. What message is she trying to convey? How does he want the reader to react? We do not often do that with photographs. The pairing of a picture book and primary sources gives us the opportunity to have the discussion.

Inspiration for the Book Selection


Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee!

Every year, my elementary school has a school-wide study focused on an African American or an event positively influenced by African Americans. The learning culminates in an evening celebration around the person or event that incorporates song, dance, art, writing, and speaking to share their learning and understanding. This year the school studied the Harlem Renaissance.

We have studied poets, artists, and musicians, their history, work, and influence. I came across the picture book Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee! by Andrea J. Loney, detailing the story of VanDerZee, an African American photographer who, during the Harlem Renaissance, photographed the Harlem community.

One aspect of the book that I found intriguing was VanDerZee’s use of backgrounds, clothing, and props to show his subjects at their best and alterations of photos in the darkroom to make his subjects look even better. When I read this, I knew I had to share this book and VanDerZee’s photos with my students.

Interacting with Portraits as Primary Sources

A search on the Digital Public Library of America results in several photos by VanDerZee held at three different institutions. Along with a photo of VanDerZee himself, the set of primary sources around his work supported the picture book.

Studio Portrait of Young Man with Telephone

After reading the book about VanDerZee, I share several photo portraits by VanDerZee from the primary source set with my older students, I pose questions that encourage students to react to the sitter in the portrait.

  • What does the person in the photograph and the photographer want you to think about them?
  • What do you see in the photograph that tells you this?

To continue to explore emotion and feelings, I use the Strike a Pose strategy, asking students to mimic the pose of the individual in the photograph. Looking at the photograph and taking on the posture and even facial expression of that person, I ask more questions.

  • How do you think the person felt while posing for the photograph?
  • How do you think the person felt when seeing their photograph for the first time?

Their responses give insight to the idea that not only do portraits make us feel something about the sitter in the portrait, but that the person viewing the portrait is encouraged to feel that way by the people creating the portrait, the person in the photo, and the person taking the photo. Returning to our primary sources, I ask how much of what we see, and therefore what we feel, about a photo is because of the person taking the photo. I remind them of picture day, when they become the subject of a portrait. How much influence does the person taking the photo have?

Combining the Two Resources

GGG Photo Studio at Christmas

Returning to the picture book, we look for evidence of VanDerZee’s influence in the photos. I ask students about one line of the book, “In the darkroom, James made their pictures look even better.” I share two more photos, “GGG Photo Studio at Christmas” and “Father Divine,” which have both been altered after the photograph was taken. I ask students:

  • What has James VanDerZee done to these photos after he has taken them?
  • How does that work make the photo better, as the book said?
  • How did changing the photo change how you, as a viewer, feel about the photo and the people in it?

Students continue to build their understanding of the photographer’s role in setting a perspective to the photograph as illustrated by VanDerZee’s work. We conclude with a final question.

“James VanDerZee photographed people in Harlem. We’ve looked at several of his photographs. If we look for a pattern in what VanDerZee wanted us to believe and see in each individual, could we make a statement about what VanDerZee wanted people who viewed his photos to see about Harlem? What could he have wanted us to see?”

Their answers show an understanding not only of VanDerZee, but of portrait photographers as a whole. These creators have a perspective and work to create a message through the portraits that they create.


Author: Tom Bober

Tom Bober is a school librarian at RM Captain Elementary, 2018 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, and author of the upcoming book Elementary Educator’s Guide to Primary Sources: Strategies for Teaching. He writes the Picture Books and Primary Sources posts for AASL’s KQ blog and has written articles for several publications. Tom also presents at conferences, runs workshops, and gives webinars to promote the use primary sources in student learning. He began his career as an elementary classroom teacher, was also an educational technologist, and has spent the last nine years as a school librarian.

Categories: Blog Topics, Collection Development, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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