Self-portrait, September 19, 1934

Photograph by Saul Mauriber, 1944



Self-portrait, April 3, 1934

by Bruce Kellner

Women seem always to have loomed large in Carl Van Vechten’s photographic legend. During his Iowa youth in the 1890s, he began making photographs with a box camera and glass plates for blue cyanotypes, starting out with his paternal grandmother, posed rather like Whistler’s mother, although he had not yet seen or even heard of that painting. Soon afterward, he photographed two little black girls sitting on the front steps of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house in Cincinnati, Ohio. Subsequently, he arranged friends— almost invariably female—for unusual compositions: as an opera singer with her mouth stretched open for a high note, as Juliet illuminated with candles in the tomb, a chorus line of Cedar Rapids girls pretending to be gypsies in makeshift costumes. A decade later, he moved on to an early Kodak, adding Metropolitan Opera singers Luisa Tetrazzini, Olive Fremstad, and others to his roster. And then he stopped taking pictures while he built a distinguished twenty-five-year career as a writer before returning to photography. He died in 1964, concluding a thirty-two-year love affair with his Leica, numbering other women among his last subjects, Frances Steloff of the Gotham Book Mart, for instance, and Gloria Vanderbilt.

His 15,000 photographs illustrated several of his avocations and interests, with broad representations of African Americans, ballet and modern dancers, theater figures, painters, musicians, and writers—a list punctuated from time to time with athletes, politicians, educators, and silent movie queens. The Beinecke Library’s current gathering, devoted exclusively to his photographs of women, is as unique as it is welcome, for it demonstrates another of Van Vechten’s passionate interests.

During a 1943 radio program called “Brains for the Asking,” during which listeners posed questions to celebrities, Van Vechten was asked if civilization had been dominated by men because women were not “physically, mentally, or emotionally endowed to cope with the problems involved.” Some good humor and some charm allowed him to cheat a bit in replying, but he did so with more than a little truth, observing, in part:

The premises on which this question is based seem to me unsound. I do not believe that civilization...has been dominated by men, and if women are not physically, mentally, and emotionally endowed to cope with the problems of the world more successfully than most men have coped with them, they must be considered very poor animals indeed. Certainly Eve dominated Adam, and since that distant day a lot of women have forced a lot of men to eat a lot of applesauce. Very often, a pretty woman with red hair and green eyes (I am choosing colors at random) who never is seen in public, has more to do with making important political decisions than the King or President or Prime Minister who sits in the front office and speaks into a microphone. . . . Was Helen of Troy a woman of power or were the wars fought so many years on her account of no import? Do names like Florence Nightingale, Margaret Sanger, Joan of Arc, Madame Curie, or Harriet Beecher Stowe . . . mean nothing in the way of evidence? Can anybody forget that Victoria, or the thing she represented, was so successful in dominating the world that practically the whole of the more or less peaceful century, during over half of which she reigned, by universal consent has come to be known as the Victorian era? Does Mrs. Roosevelt tire more quickly than the President? . . . Is Rebecca West less intelligent than [Pierre] Laval? I wonder if anyone, male or female, has ever coped successfully with the problems of this world. It is true there have been Victorias. . . . but it is equally true that the public is more often at the mercy of the [Neville] Chamberlains....and the William Jennings Bryans.1

Perhaps that attitude explains, in part at least, Van Vechten’s having photographed so many women. He even initiated his new career as a photographer with women—his earliest subjects were his wife, Russian-American actress Fania Marinoff, and Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong—soon after Mexican caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias returned from Germany with a Leica camera in 1932. Once Van Vechten had seen what wonders a Leica could perform, his enthusiasm was incandescent. After some rudimentary lessons from celebrity photographer Nickolas Muray, he blew out all the fuses on the floor of his apartment building at 150 West 55th Street during an early attempt at lighting. Then he had the place rewired for heavy duty and installed a darkroom in the servant’s quarters of the flat he and Fania Marinoff shared.

Behind him lay several successful vocations. Before World War I he had become America’s first dance critic, writing regularly about Anna Pavlova, Isadora Duncan, and Vaslav Nijinsky, and latter-day dance critics Edwin Denby and John Martin both acknowledged their debt to Van Vechten’s early assessments. As a music critic, he had been first in America to endorse Igor Stravinsky and Erik Satie, and as early as January 1917 he had pronounced ragtime and jazz “the only music produced in America to-day . . . on which the musicians of this land can the future.”
2 That’s about seven years before he became the first critic to champion the music of George Gershwin. As a literary critic he was Gertrude Stein’s persistent advocate from 1913, and arguably he was second and maybe first to rediscover Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick in 1920. He wrote The Tiger in the House, the best book ever written about the domestic cat. With the advent of the “Splendid Drunken Twenties,” as he later dubbed the prohibition decade, he turned out several popular novels, including Nigger Heaven in 1926, which spurred interest in Harlem speakeasies as well as in young African-American writers, popularizing among white slummers and some white readers what has come to be called the Harlem Renaissance. After compiling volumes of his musical and literary criticism and of some autobiographical essays, he gave up writing almost entirely and turned to photography as a full-time occupation.

Occupation or hobby, indeed, is a more appropriate designation than career or profession, because Van Vechten never took commissions, he never sold his photographs, he only granted permission to publish them when he was assured of the quality of reproduction in periodicals and other news organs, he never photographed anybody he didn’t want to photograph, and he gave away his multiple copies of his prints to their subjects and to friends. Moreover, the scope of sittings varied widely: he made four or five photographs of Myra Hess, but over a period of years he made four or five hundred photographs of Alicia Markova. A few years later, he began to establish impressive photographic archives to accompany his gifts of books and manuscripts to libraries, and he continued this activity until his death.

The archive in the Beinecke includes a number of photographs of women, some of whom comprise the library’s current exhibition. Often Van Vechten printed these up as postcards—sometimes unidentified—to use for casual correspondence. “Who is the nice looking cullud lady you sent me two or three times now on a postal card . . .” Langston Hughes once queried. “Dear Langston,” Van Vechten replied, “I send out so many postcards every day and ‘nice cullud lady’ describes a good many of them. It would even fit Lena Horne.”
3 He had photographed her when she was still in her teens, as he would later photograph Diahann Carroll at about the same age.

If the identity of a Van Vechten portrait could prove temporarily mysterious, the photographer could not. There was almost always a distinctive look to his work, borne in part of his use of multi-patterned backgrounds, usually reflecting a subject’s profession or personality or both. He had a fondness for profiles and pensive stares, in the beginning strong contrasts in lighting that suggest the soignée art deco that marked the Thirties, and he liked photographing women with flowers. He never retouched his photographs, and he did not approve of cropping designed to intensify some dramatic effect. Photographs were compositions in his view, and he intended them, he often claimed, to be documents.

At first, his chiaroscuro was so intense that the black and white design of the lighting often threatened to overwhelm the subject. Once past this period of experiment, however, his work did grow more documentary, as his collections grew: the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of American Negro Arts and Letters at Yale University; composers and musicians for the George Gershwin Memorial Collection at Fisk University; writers for the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library; dancers for both the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts and the Museum of Modern Art; actors and others connected with the theater for the Museum of the City of New York; more general collections for several other institutions, including the Moorland-Spingarn Library at Howard University, the Detroit Public Library, the Chicago Art Institute, even his high school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and on his death collections to Brandeis University, the Library of Congress, and a full run of his photographs to Yale, where the Beinecke Library shelters all of his negatives and contact prints.

Van Vechten once declared that he “threw away anything that isn’t perfection,”
4 but his photographs often deny this claim. He could be his own worst enemy in the darkroom by not always washing his prints free of developing chemicals, in his eagerness to share his latest work with his friends. Also, he generally printed up every frame he took rather than selecting the best one from a batch of proofs. As a result of these indiscretions, borne of his enthusiasm, there are better and worse Van Vechten photographs around. But his best work justifies the admiring endorsements of two of his contemporaries who knew what they were talking about: photographer Alfred Stieglitz and art critic Henry McBride. Moreover, Van Vechten’s noble profile of Gertrude Stein, his pensive Bessie Smith, and at least two of his photographs of Zora Neale Hurston—one of them on this year’s Black Heritage postage stamp—are sufficiently familiar to qualify as national icons.

Other photographs in the Beinecke’s collection are equally beautiful, if less familiar. Some of them in the current exhibition have never been shown or reproduced before. Many of them bear out Van Vechten’s claim, “I am an intense believer in ‘the exact second’ and watch for it closely when I make photographs.” Even so, he could be equally proud of “natural errors and fortunate accidents.” Some of the latter may have occurred as the result of alarm, since Van Vechten was not always able to put his subjects at their immediate ease, despite his earnest efforts. In his youth, enormous buck teeth severely marred his handsome features; in maturity, they inspired more than one person to liken him to some member of the animal kingdom: “an amiable walrus,” “a wild boar,” “a scary werewolf.” He barked a lot too, between photographs—“Woof! Woof!”—if he was having a good time. Often still wearing his silk pajamas under an elaborate dressing gown, or togged out in lively striped silk shirts that clashed with multi-colored neckties, and beltless trousers held in place up to his armpits by pink suspenders decorated with naked ladies, or flowered ones in red and purple, his bracelets jangling, his sparse white hair eventually combed forward into bangs above his embalmed stare, more penetrating than the eye of his Leica, he weaved and waited for that “exact second.”

In his best work, Carl Van Vechten fixed time long past, and place long retired into memory, in glamorous photographs which, he insisted, were “intended primarily as documents.” But he believed, too, “that is no reason they should not be beautiful.”

1 “Brains for the Asking,”May 1943, manuscript, Van Vechten Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University
2 “The Great American Composer,” Interpreters and Interpretations, NY: Knopf, 1917, p. 279
3 Hughes to Van Vechten 18 Sept. 1947; Van Vechten to Hughes 19 Sept. 1947, Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechtan, 1925-1964, Ed., Emily Bernard, NY: Knopf, 2001, pp. 248-49
4 A Rudimentary Narration,” Columbia University, Oral History Collection, 1962, et seq.











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