Until the early 1930s, Carl Van Vechten wrote for a living. After graduating from the University of Chicago and moving to New York City, the Iowa native covered music, dance, and theater for newspapers and wrote several novels, including the wildly controversial Nigger Heaven, about a romance between two biracial lovers who can’t fit in with either whites or blacks. One of the earliest white champions of the Harlem Renaissance, Van Vechten promoted black artists in articles for Vanity Fair, provided financial assistance and publishing contacts to black writers, visited Harlem nightclubs, and hosted integrated parties in his Manhattan apartment.
The somber climate created by the stock market crash effectively ended the Jazz Age and the demand for Van Vechten’s novels, but royalties and an inheritance allowed him to continue hosting parties and traveling to Europe. Then, in 1932, his friend Miguel Covarrubias returned from abroad with a 35-millimeter Leica, which photojournalists had just started using for its ease of operation. Excited, Van Vechten bought one for himself and set up a studio and darkroom in his apartment. Over the next three decades he shot buildings, street scenes, and portraits, using props, clothing, furniture, and backdrops to individualize the latter.
In a 1962 Esquire essay, Van Vechten wrote: “Photography is the most exigent of mistresses, both demanding and rewarding, depending on the amount of success achieved. It becomes an addiction (even an affliction) or an enchantment. Endless time and patience are prerequisites, and important results imply persistent research, considerable experiment, a fabulous amount of trial, with acceptance or rejection of the results.” By his death at 84 two years later, he had produced more than 15,000 photographs.
Hand gravure reproductions of 50 of them, including portraits of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Lena Horne, and Paul Robeson, are on display at the Woodson Regional Library’s Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, 9525 S. Halsted. The free exhibit, entitled “O Write My Name: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes,” runs through December 15. For more information call 312-745-2080.