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Carl Van Vechten

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Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964)was born into a Midwesterner banking family. An aesthete, a critic, a music lover, a writer of extravagant prose, he blossomed studying at the University of Chicago internalizing that institution’s intellectual ambition. His niche sensibility, queer desires, and neo-baroque prose style did not sit well with newspaper editors in Chicago, so he departed for Manhattan, becoming a writer for the New York Times commenting on opera in the era of Richard Strauss's Salome. He indulged in a mini-grand tour, for his self cultivation, but found Paris and the salon of Gertrude Stein so congenial, he stalled in his journey. He became infatuated with novelty, avante garde provocation, and experimental prose. He returned to New York reinstalling himself at the New York Times, becoming its first regular dance critic. He understood criticism to be advocacy of the audacious and new. He championed modern opera, bohemian Greenwich Village, and the literary, musical, theatrical, and visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance. He married two women, but was among the most unabashedly gay intellectuals in New York City. He wrote fiction—Parties, Firecrackers, Nigger Heaven--novels that sound at times like social reportage when they aren’t striving for the shock value of a hardboiled detective tale. They enjoyed success then. Nigger Heaven provoked controversy for its African-American ventriloquisms. All of his fiction seems contrived now. He felt the hollowness at the heart of these efforts, so turned after the Wall Street Crash to photography.

He was the oddest of Broadway's photo artists. He had inherited a million dollars at a time when the Depression had emptied many a Manhattanite's bank accounts. So he was not interested in commercial portraiture. He did not hire for sittings. Instead, he invited you to his apartment on West 55th. He only wanted to portray artists—in any area of art. He made artists appear different than other humans—moodier, more inhibited or uninhibited, more self-enchanted, disturbed, or sensitive. He was fascinated with actresses past their prime. Black divas also had a favored place in his work. Sturdy young men, white or black. Old master opera singers. Van Vechten was supposed to have been a scintillating conversationalist. But one has the impression looking at his sittings that he wasn’t talking with the subject. He and his camera went passive and tried to catch any accident of gesture or expression that somehow conveyed something.

The public life of his photography was peculiarly casual. He didn't strive for the pages of Look or even the Times. Yet if you trying to get an experimental arts magazine off the ground, he would send something your way. Van Vechtan liked to give his images to his sitters. He was also aware than cultural institutions brokered the long term reputation of artists, so insured that extensive holdings of his portraits were held by museums and universities after his death.

Some people speak of the psychological insight of Van Vechten’s portraits. Such insight came at a rather high cost. Many of the qualities esteemed in terms of portraiture and the harmony of sitter and surroundings were neglected by Van Vechten. Rather his characteristic image has a perfunctory treatment of background, an awkward handling of the horizon line in the full figure portraits he took, a flattening of tonal contrast, and a fixation on a vantage point some 8 feet from the subject. Often the bottom parts of his subjects are missing. I suppose you could claim that he subordinated his own eye to the ethos of the people he depicted. He certainly allowed them to strike what pose they wished, and the oddity of some of their choices is psychologically informative.


Van Vechtan portrays the sitter as an artist. The artist is a distinctive, odd person. That peculiarity is what he wished to capture. He accepted that artists come from all races and nationalities. The number of African-American artists was pioneering.