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Carl Van Vechten

Author and photographer Carl Van Vechten's life and work can be characterized as a study of contrasts. Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on June 17, 1880 into a family of privilege - his father Charles Van Vechten was a banker and his civic-minded mother Ada Fitch Van Vechten was a founder of the Cedar Rapids Public Library - Carl Van Vechten was always attracted to the seamier side of life he was not going to experience in the bucolic Midwest. After graduating from Washington High School, he left "that unloved town" of Cedar Rapids to study at the University of Chicago. After graduating in 1903, he began his journalistic career writing a column for the Chicago American. He later moved to New York, where he became a respected media critic, penning critiques for The New York Times and The New York Press.

After a brief marriage to high school sweetheart Anna Elizabeth Snyder, Mr. Van Vechten became the protege of art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, who introduced him to the popular avant-garde movement. While traveling through Paris, Mr. Van Vechten met and befriended American expatriate and Modernist author Gertrude Stein. In 1914, Mr. Van Vechten married Russian-born stage actress Fania Marinoff, and the couple stayed together for five decades despite his many homosexual dalliances. During the 1920s, Mr. Van Vechten began writing the first of seven novel and the carefree style he adopted personally and professionally was both celebrated and maligned. Though his novels were not commercially successful, by his mid 40s, Mr. Van Vechten had established himself within New York literary circles as an insightful theatrical and dance critic. He also became a frequent fixture of the Harlem Renaissance, becoming a vocal supporter of black musical artists in mainstream white publications like Vanity Fair, in which he described black music as the "only authentic American" musical genre.

During the Great Depression, Mr. Van Vechten's primary vocation was as Gertrude Stein's literary agent. However, a financial windfall courtesy of a late uncle's bequest provided him with the financial freedom to explore other creative venues. When Mexican caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias introduced him to a 33mm Leica camera, Mr. Van Vechten knew he had found his perfect medium of expression. His legendary parties often culminated in all-night sessions during which he photographed his celebrity friends. Though he would photograph both black and white artists, it is his photographs of black authors and musical performers for which he achieved his greatest prominence. Mr. Van Vechten would later boast, "I have photographed everybody from Matisse to Isamu Noguchi." Mr. Van Vechten's trademark style was photographing his subjects in black and white while posing in front of ornate art deco swatches. He traded his lighthearted persona for that of a driven perfectionist, shooting hundreds of exposures but only producing one print per negative. Despite his status as an amateur photographer, his works were featured alongside such influential photographers as Cecil Beaton and Edward Steichen at New York's Second International Leica Exhibition of photography in 1935. Art critic Henry McBride observed, "What is literature's loss is photography's gain - quite distinctly Mr. Van Vechten is the Bronzino (Italian Renaissance painter) of this camera period." Carl Van Vechten also created several homoerotic images that were not exhibited in his lifetime. He was experimenting with color photography when he died on December 21, 1964 at the age of 84. Mr. Van Vechten's photographic negatives and more than 9,000 black-and-white prints are presently housed at New York Public Library and the Museum of Modern Art; Yale University's Beinecke Library in New Haven, Connecticut; and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.




Ref:
2003 Bessie: Revised and Expanded Edition by Chris Albertson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), p. 52.

2008 The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press), pp. 522-524.

2012 Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White by Emily Bernard (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), pp. 1909, 1920.

2013 Carl Van Vechten's Portraits (URL: http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/collections/highlights/carl-van-vechtens-portraits).

2006 The Homoerotic Photography of Carl Van Vechten by James Smalls (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), pp. 1, 3-4, 10.

2014 The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America by Edward White (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), p. 308.

2012 Trip Down Memory Lane (URL: http://kwekudee-tripdownmemorylane.blogspot.com/2012/09/jazzs-first-diva-billie-holiday.html).


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