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Field Notes: The Photography of Carl Van Vechten

W.E.B DuBois, 1946


Billie Holiday, 1949
By Kristy Tillman
Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964) primarily known as a music/dance critic and novelist gained a reputation as a theatrical and society photographer during the time of the Harlem Renaissance. Based in New York City, after completing a stint at the New York Times, Van Vechten took great interest in black artists and writers of the time period; documenting many who are considered canonical figures in the black collective as subjects of his work. Many of the sitters, such as W.E.B DuBois, Billie Holiday and Alivn Ailey, were acquaintances of Van Vechten. He primarily photographed them in his studio portrait style, in private sittings, and also at social gatherings. It was also not unusual for Van Vetchen to implore bright colorful backgrounds and elaborate costuming in his photography.


Alvin Ailey, 1955 

Mary McLeod Bethune, 1949 
Langston Hughes and Horace Cayton at Fisk University, 1947 

Eartha Kitt, 1954 

Prince Etuka Okala Abutu of Nigeria. 1946 
More about Van Vechten
Van Vechten is credited as being a patron of the Harlem Renaissance, having contributed to black theatrical productions and penned narratives about black life in Harlem such as his controversial book, Nigger Heaven. The book received a mixed reception from Harlemites, as reported by author Wallace Thurman in his 1926 review that appeared in Fire!!. The title, labeled as satirical commentary by Van Vechten himself, initially drew ire from the black community. In addition, many felt that Nigger Heaven portrayed black Americans in a largely negative light drawing upon sweeping generalizations and stereotypes of sexual, gambling and alcohol. W.E.B DuBois would eventually contribute a wholesale dismissal of the book in the NAACP Crisis. It should be noted that the text also had its share of defenders in Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson, who lauded the piece in Opportunity, the official journal of the National Urban League.




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