Carl Van Vechten’s 9,000 Portraits of Great 20th Century Cultural Icons: Billie Holiday, Orson Welles, Dizzy Gillespie & Beyond

Image above and below by Carl Van Vecht­en, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Amer­i­cans have long con­sid­ered New York City, at least dur­ing its rel­a­tive­ly inex­pen­sive eras or in its rel­a­tive­ly expen­sive areas, a haven for every type of artist and mem­bers of all sub­cul­tures. The den­si­ty of its pop­u­la­tion, by Amer­i­can stan­dards, also presents its denizens with the oppor­tu­ni­ty to cross between one artis­tic or sub­cul­tur­al realm and anoth­er with ease — or with geo­graph­i­cal ease, any­way. Few New York fig­ures crossed as many such bound­aries as cre­ative­ly in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry as a Cedar Rapids-born writer and pho­tog­ra­ph­er named Carl van Vecht­en.

“When Van Vecht­en first arrived in New York, in 1906, there were few signs that he would ever attempt to appoint him­self bard of Harlem,” writes Kele­fa San­neh in New York­er piece on Van Vecht­en’s life. “He was a self-con­scious­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed exile from the Mid­west, and he was quick­ly hired by the Times as a music and dance crit­ic.” In addi­tion, to his crit­i­cism, “he also pub­lished a series of mis­chie­vous nov­els that were notable main­ly, one crit­ic observed, for their ‘annoy­ing man­ner­isms.’ ” (The crit­ic? Prob­a­bly the author him­self.) And the longer Van Vecht­en lived in New York, “the more inter­est­ed he became in the sights and sounds of Harlem, where rau­cous and inven­tive night clubs were thriv­ing under Pro­hi­bi­tion.”

The white Van Vecht­en wrote a nov­el about black life in Harlem, insist­ing on a title that I doubt I can even type here. It expressed what San­neh calls “his con­vic­tion that Negro cul­ture was the essence of Amer­i­ca,” which went with “his simul­ta­ne­ous fas­ci­na­tion with the avant-garde and the broad­ly pop­u­lar; and his string of sex­u­al rela­tion­ships with men, which were an open secret dur­ing his life. Van Vechten’s tastes were var­ied: his bib­li­og­ra­phy includes an eru­dite cul­tur­al his­to­ry of the house cat, and in his lat­er decades he became an accom­plished por­trait pho­tog­ra­ph­er.” Black, white, or oth­er­wise, near­ly every major fig­ure in the Amer­i­can cul­ture of the day seems to have sat for his cam­era: actors, writ­ers, musi­cians, intel­lec­tu­als, archi­tects, mag­nates, and many oth­er types besides.

Some of the sub­jects of Van Vecht­en’s over 9,000 por­traits, all brows­able online at Yale’s Bei­necke Rare Book and Man­u­script Library, were his friends: Gertrude Stein, and Langston Hugh­es, for instance, both of whom expressed great enthu­si­asm for Van Vecht­en’s writ­ing on black cul­ture. Oth­ers cre­at­ed that black cul­ture, now known as the Harlem Renais­sance: Dizzy Gille­spie, Bil­lie Hol­l­i­day, James Bald­win. Oth­ers made up the cul­ture of glob­al celebri­ty, then only in its infan­cy: Orson Welles, Lotte Ley­na, Lau­rence Olivi­er.

They, and more so Van Vecht­en him­self, knew that to become an icon in the 20th cen­tu­ry, you need­ed to do much more than excel in the human realm: you had to tran­scend it, ascend­ing into that of the image. If you suf­fi­cient­ly fas­ci­nat­ed Van Vecht­en, it seems, he was only too glad to help you on your way there. See thou­sands of his por­traits at this Yale web­site.

Por­traits in order of appear­ance on this page include: Bil­lie Hol­l­i­day, Orson Welles, James Bald­win, Gertrude Stein, and Dizzy Gille­spie. All come cour­tesy of the Van Vecht­en Col­lec­tion at Library of Con­gress.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A 1932 Illus­trat­ed Map of Harlem’s Night Clubs: From the Cot­ton Club to the Savoy Ball­room

Dis­cov­er Langston Hugh­es’ Rent Par­ty Ads & The Harlem Renais­sance Tra­di­tion of Play­ing Gigs to Keep Roofs Over Heads

Andy Warhol’s 85 Polaroid Por­traits: Mick Jag­ger, Yoko Ono, O.J. Simp­son & Many Oth­ers (1970–1987)

200,000 Pho­tos from the George East­man Muse­um, the World’s Old­est Pho­tog­ra­phy Col­lec­tion, Now Avail­able Online

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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