The Photography of Carl Van Vechten

March 12th, 2014


Carl Van Vechten


      The publication of a new biography on Carl Van Vechten has sparked a renewed interest in his work.  Critic, author and patron of many a Harlem Renaissance artist, Van Vechten was also an accomplished photographer, whose work was described by a New York Telegraph reporter in 1933 as “breathtaking…each [photo] with life and sparkle, vision and intelligence.”

      His access to the artists led to a portfolio of what he called “purely documentary” photographs of a “who’s who” of early-to-mid 20th Century American cultural icons  — including some of the era’s finest writers and musicians. Emily Bernard, author of Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance writes that “Van Vechten always saw the act of taking a photograph as entirely personal, and his prolific success was made possible by his vast collection of friends and acquaintances.”

     Van Vechten biographer Bruce Kellner described being the subject of Van Vechten’s camera in Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades. “It was never the easiest thing to survive with savior-faire. Carl always puttered a little; an assistant set up the lights. Carl adjusted his camera on a wooden easel; the assistant supplied stools, chairs – indeed, chaise lounges or beds – against the draped or otherwise decorated fourth wall. Then the subject sat. The lights were excruciatingly hot, and the room was stuffy. Carl stood behind his camera, staring like a mad scientist in the movies, waiting for the ‘exact moment,’ in which he always believed. Then the shutter began to snap, sometimes quickly, sometimes with syncopated hesitation, always with Carl’s embalmed stare above.”

      What follows are selected photos demonstrating the “sparkle, vision and intelligence” the Telegraph reporter wrote about Van Vechten’s early work, and which continued to show up throughout his career.


“I’ve photographed everybody, from Matisse to Isamu Noguchi.  My first subject was Anna May Wong, and my second was Eugene O’Neill.”

– Carl Van Vechten


Anna May Wong, 1933



Eugene O’Neill, 1933


“I am very particular, and want certain backgrounds.  I want all sorts of things.”

– Carl Van Vechten


Gertrude Stein, 1935


“For Langston Hughes, he created a background made of a pastiche of clippings from newspapers all over the country, perhaps a comment on Hughes’s demanding travel schedule.

– Emily Bernard, author of Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance


Langston Hughes, 1936


“Bessie Smith survived a session with Van Vechten in 1936.  He had admired Smith since he first heard her earliest records, which he ‘played and played in the early twenties and everybody who came to my apartment was invited to hear them. [Smith] revealed a different side of herself than the one she displayed onstage.  She was ‘cold sober and in a quite, reflective mood.'”

– Emily Bernard


Bessie Smith, 1936


“In considering photographs in black and white, I consider backgrounds very seriously.”

– Carl Van Vechten


Orson Welles, 1937



Zora Neale Hurston, 1938


“He was fussy about composition, and used elaborate props — ‘robes, costumes, banshee hats, Easter eggs, masks, feathers, cats, marionettes,’ recalled Bruce Kellner.”

– Emily Bernard


Salvador Dali, 1939


Marian Anderson, 1940


“In the first decade of his career as a photographer, Van Vechten experimented with chiaroscuro lighting, props, and dramatic poses for his subjects.”

– Emily Bernard

Ella Fitzgerald, 1940


Lena Horne, 1941


Pearl Bailey, 1946


“‘Holiday was ‘here all night,’Van Vechten remembered, ‘and she was very difficult to break down.  I didn’t know her, and she was very difficult, and it took me at least two hours to break her down, and then she became so friendly she didn’t want to go at all.’  He finally ‘broke her down’ by showing her the pictures he’d taken of Bessie Smith, whom she held in great esteem…Four years before he died, after nearly thirty years and thousands of photographs, Van Vechten called his photographs of Billie Holiday not only some of his best, but the best ones of Holiday ever taken.”

– Emily Bernard

Billie Holiday, 1949


“Van Vechten was particularly proud of the range of his photographs of blacks.  ‘One of the unique features of the collection is a set of photographs of Negroes which I have made myself during the past ten years,’ he told readers of the Crisis in 1942, ‘perhaps the largest group of photographs of notable Negro personalities ever made by one man.'”

– Emily Bernard

Josephine Baker, 1951


Eartha Kitt, 1952



James Baldwin, 1955


Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance, by Emily Bernard

Carl Van Vechten’s Portraits at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library


Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance, a Smithsonian production


For more on the Harlem Renaissance:

Visit our Historic Harlem Tour

Read our interview with Zora Neale Hurston scholar Carla Kaplan

Visit our “Art of Romare Bearden” page

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One comments on “The Photography of Carl Van Vechten”

  1. what wonderful pictures. Carl Van Vechten is often mentioned in the biographies of Gertrude Stein. I think he captured Billie and her inner sadness

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