Apr 24, 2015
The subject of the portrait is Clayhorn Martin, a Harlem street preacher who had gone barefoot ever since the day in his youth when God told him to shed his shoes and walk on holy ground. Till the day he died, he walked the streets with his tambourine, shouting to the world that God dwells in every single person, not in church buildings or special dignitaries.
Martin was a homeless man, a neighborhood character. In this formal studio portrait, photographer James Van Der Zee focused not so much on his outward condition as on his internal seriousness and faith. In other words, the scene he set for his camera aimed to take Preacher Martin at his word, seeking to show the higher purpose within him.
Martin had been born a slave in Virginia in 1851; he died homeless on the street in 1937. Van Der Zee and other artists of the Harlem Renaissance raised money to give him a proper sendoff, a funeral attended by five hundred or more of his neighbors, his flock.