Collection Explore
Essay
Ten Frames of Carl Van Vechten
by Caryl Phillips

Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964) was a music and dance critic, novelist, and photographer in New York City beginning in the first decades of the twentieth century. As part of his interest in promoting black artists, writers, and other creatives—as well as being a part of their world during the Harlem Renaissance—he began taking portraits. As a white, privately wealthy photographer, Van Vechten’s interest in black life has been cause for celebration and controversy. He produced extensive documentation of the culturati of the Harlem Renaissance and advocated for the work of figures as important as Langston Hughes. Yet in 1926, he wrote a book called Nigger Heaven and he has been accused, both today and in his own time, of cultural tourism and similar offenses. —Rebecca McNamara, Tang Associate Curator

In the texts that follow, writer Caryl Phillips unpacks Van Vechten’s work through the fictionalized eyes of the photographer and his subjects.


Caryl Phillips
Professor of English
Yale University

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Carl Van Vechten (Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1880 – 1964, New York, New York)
[Joe Louis], 1941
gelatin silver print
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum
2017.41.615

Joe Louis, 1941

The jackass smiled and told me to stand up and take off my shirt in that high-toned voice of his. Just before the fellar arrived from the city with a camera in his hand I asked my manager, “Mr. Jacobs, why I got to spend any time with this man, let alone a whole hour when I’m supposed to be up here at Greenwood Lake training for the Lou Nova fight?” Everybody telling me the army’s fixing to draft my tan ass so I figure Nova might be my last fight and I ain’t ready to go out with no loss chalked up against my name. Mr. Jacobs slipped an arm around my shoulders. He said, “Listen Joe, this big shot is some kind of friend to the colored race. You be a good boy and do whatever the man wants you to do and then we’ll get Mr. Fancy Pants the hell out of here and you can go back to work. That okay by you?” I nodded. “Yes sir, Mr. Jacobs.” But hell, why I got to take off my goddamn shirt? I was waiting for Mr. Jacobs to step in and tell the city swell to quit fooling and hurry it along with his damn pictures and go, but Mr. Jacobs just cutting his eyes at the man, and then he takes another long pull on his fat cigar, but he didn’t say nothing to the fellar. Shit, ain’t nobody tell me nothing about stripping off my shirt for this man.


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Carl Van Vechten (Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1880 – 1964, New York, New York)
[Carmen de Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder], 1955
gelatin silver print
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum
2017.41.483

Carmen de Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder, 1955

Before we got in the car to go to the church, Mama took me to one side and whispered, “Child, you better smile for the camera because you’re only going to have the one wedding day, and it’s this man’s photographs that you’re going to be looking at when you’re sitting on the porch in your rocking chair with your grandchildren bouncing up and down in your lap.” Mama lifted up my chin with the underbelly of her forefinger. “Photographs ain’t like quilting. You can’t just unpick them and then begin again like they never existed. I want you to look into the white man’s camera and smile.” But even as I climbed into the car and settled into the back seat for the short journey to the church, I knew that this man was only bringing his camera to the wedding in order that he might take pictures of my Geoffrey. Tall, handsome Geoffrey who liked to act like he didn’t know what kind of thoughts were running through the man’s mind. “Mr. Carl got our backs, Carmen. Every colored performer in America owe him something.” Owe him what, Geoffrey? But I never said a thing, and on my wedding day Mama’s words were dancing about in my head, and so I busied myself smiling ’til I started to worry that henceforth smiling might be the only expression that I would ever be able to offer up to the world.


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Carl Van Vechten (Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1880 – 1964, New York, New York)
[Charles Blackwell], July 5, 1955
gelatin silver print
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum
2017.41.455

Charles Blackwell, 1955

I never let my wife know where I was going because I knew she would have plenty to say about it. “You’re going where? And for what? To just dress up like a damn fool for that man, and he ain’t even paying you.” But I didn’t give her a chance to say a thing, and I made up some phony appointment and then hustled my way across Manhattan to Mr. Van Vechten’s studio. First time it was normal dance posing in stage costumes, and then he asked me to come back again the following week. Second time he starts in telling me about all the famous colored people he’s photographed, but I already know about them. And even if I didn’t know, I ain’t blind. I can see their pictures up on the walls. Then he gets all sugary and begins questioning me about when I was touring in Africa with the School of African Dance, but I quickly figure he ain’t so much interested in the dancing now. It turns out Van Vechten wants me to dress up like an African man sitting in a market trying to sell vegetables or some shit. Makes me put on a little hat and squat down, and I get to thinking, hell, maybe my wife is right; no reason for me to come back here again to do no more dressing up. I don’t care how many famous colored people the man’s photographed, I ain’t no market salesman, I’m a dancer, and when I try and remind him of this he just smiles to himself like he ain’t heard a damn thing, but I know he heard me loud and clear.


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Carl Van Vechten (Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1880 – 1964, New York, New York)
[Nora Holt], March 18, 1953
gelatin silver print
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum
2017.41.512

Nora Holt, 1953

As a young woman I was a wild damsel who habitually indulged in behavior that so-called decent people were simply too frightened to talk about. Now, in my late autumn, my friend no longer wishes to remember how I was. It seems to me that Carlo is somewhat keen to turn giddy Nora into a little old church lady and pretend that our antics in Harlem during the drunken twenties, and my subsequent, somewhat aberrant, twelve years in Europe and Asia singing and dancing at extravagant nightclubs and private parties, never happened. However, I’m not ashamed to admit that I was a fast girl. After all, by the age of fifteen I was already married, and four marriages followed that one, but none of them truly worked out for no man could ever turn crazy Nora into a little obedient stay-at-home wife. Carlo knows full well that at a lot of the Harlem parties I liked nothing better than to peel off my clothes. Why not, I had no worries about the way my naked body looked, and men seemed to enjoy ogling me, and that was all fine and dandy as far as I was concerned. I had a bachelor’s degree, and a master’s, and I could be as respectable as a nun if I chose to be, but I could also flap with the best of them and if ever there was a time for flapping it was back then in the twenties. But look at what my friend is trying to do to me. It makes no sense that Carlo now appears to be determined to present his Nora as some harmless spinster lady, for he was right there with me at all the outlandish parties—and a good number of them were thrown by Mr. Van Vechten himself. Dear Kooky Carlo, with your big, toothy smile, are you ashamed of how we besported ourselves back then? Do you want the world to think differently about you now, Carlo? Is that it?


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Carl Van Vechten (Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1880 – 1964, New York, New York)
[Carmen de Lavallade and son, Leo Holder], December 26, 1958
gelatin silver print
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum
2017.41.480

Carmen de Lavallade and son, Leo Holder, 1958

Geoffrey insisted, but I should never have agreed. The fact is, I'm ashamed I offered up my son to be photographed by this man. Just listening to the fool trying to get Leo's attention made my stomach turn. “Over here, my golden little child. Look this way.” I refused to help the man by whispering in my son's ear, or cupping a hand beneath Leo's chubby face and gently turning the boy's head toward the camera. I simply pretended that I never heard what the man was asking of my son, and I gave Leo a gentle squeeze, all the while silently pleading with Geoffrey to quit playing dumb and be a husband and a father and put an end to this stupidity.


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Carl Van Vechten (Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1880 – 1964, New York, New York)
[Geoffrey Holder], September 2, 1954
gelatin silver print
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum
2017.41.506

Geoffrey Holder, 1954

The ability to sink into an unselfconscious performance in front of the camera is what distinguishes my male models from the female. From an early age, the female is trained to be aware of her appearance as an extension of her sex. A woman is never innocent; she is always performing. It is her duty—indeed part of her role in the world—to preen and pose. For the male, such behavior is learned; it is something novel that often lends value to his existence. A man posing for my camera appreciates a new way of being and he invariably embraces the revelation. Of course this is also true for the Negro male; but for the Negro there is something else—artful posturing is verification of his value in this troubled world. My camera desires him, respects him, and for the first time the Negro can be himself and release his inner strength and beauty. My dear Geoffrey understands this more than most, and there is something of the spiritual about our sessions in my small studio. When I was a writer and a critic, a great part of my mission involved encouraging the colored man to see himself anew, and I hoped to embolden the Negro so that he might delight in his unique status in our ever-changing republic. Now, with a camera to hand, I have finally discovered a form that can fully promote my vision of these remarkable players on the American stage. Geoffrey takes my direction with ease, quickly falling into a stupor of magnificent acquiescence. He serves my camera as an actor serves a text, putting aside doubt, suspending all disbelief, and throwing himself headlong into the glorious crucible of art.


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Carl Van Vechten (Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1880 – 1964, New York, New York)
[Pearl Bailey as Butterfly in "St. Louis Woman"], July 5, 1946
gelatin silver print
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum
2017.41.461

Pearl Bailey as Butterfly in "St. Louis Woman", 1946

“Now that you're costumed as a maid, might I prevail upon you to pour some champagne?”
“A maid? What the hell's the matter with you? In this production I play a bargirl named Butterfly.”
“Of course. I'm terribly sorry if I've offended you.”
“Ain't no maids in St. Louis Woman. My manager said you wanted me to dress and act like I do in the play. That's why I brought the glasses and the bottle.”
“Yes, and I thank you for doing so.”
“You ain't even seen the play, have you?”
“I believe it has been a great success.”
“Mister, you even know who I am?”
“Miss Bailey, how can you ask such a question?”
“You ever see Miss Pearl Bailey cleaning up anybody's mess?”
“No, of course not. But Miss Bailey, as a bargirl, would you perhaps be good enough to pour the champagne?”
“Listen Mr. Nice-To-Colored-Folks, I got no patience with your foolishness. I'm gonna do this just the one time, okay? Take your damn picture and let me get the hell out of here. You ready?”


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Carl Van Vechten (Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1880 – 1964, New York, New York)
[Baroness Karen Blixen and Carl Van Vechten], April 13, 1959
gelatin silver print
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum
2017.41.443

Baroness Karen Blixen and Carl Van Vechten, 1959

When Baroness Blixen came out of Africa I thought it only right and proper to speak with her about my Africa. However, after nearly an hour of conversation I reluctantly accepted that the good lady was not in the slightest bit interested.

She insisted, “Come, you must sit down next to me and keep me company.”
The Baroness also had no curiosity with regard to my camera. Seemingly, as far as the lady was concerned, I was the true object of fascination. I took her hand and she arched her eyebrows.
She asked me, “My poor boy, what are you hoping to achieve?”
I thought for a moment, but before I could answer she continued.
“You do grasp that you'll never be accepted by them, don't you? They will smile and grin, and some may even cavort for you, but Mr. Van Vechten, unlike your black-and-white images, life is best navigated in black or white. I do hope we understand each other.”


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Carl Van Vechten (Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1880 – 1964, New York, New York)
[Marc Chagall], July 4, 1941
gelatin silver print
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum
2017.41.465

Marc Chagall, 1941

The cretin asks me to look into the distance as though I am following a loved one onto a bus or a train. But why would a loved one be leaving me? What catastrophe has occurred that causes such a person to suddenly wish to flee my presence? The American offers no explanation; the clumsy man makes no sense whatsoever. Quick, hurry, press your shutter and then please take down the filthy blanket that serves you as a backdrop. The composition offends me. The smell offends me. Enough of this charade.


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Carl Van Vechten (Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1880 – 1964, New York, New York)
title unknown, 20th century
gelatin silver print
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum
2017.41.831

Unnamed Boy

The first duty of an artist is to be able to see. Late one morning, I happened across this boy shining shoes on Broadway and pressed a crisp dollar bill into his open palm and asked him to come with me to my studio. Once there I encouraged the boy to take off his filthy sweater, and I gave him a clean vest, and a shirt that was a little too big for him. I could see that the boy liked the shirt, and so I assured him that he looked handsome and once we were through with our appointment he might keep it. I then instructed him to turn his body slightly to the left and look into the distance as though he was following somebody he loved—his Mama, perhaps—as she got on an early-morning bus to go to work cleaning white people's houses. I told him, “Look at her with love,” and, of course, the child performed his part beautifully. When I first noticed the lonely boy on the crowded street, stooped and bent over with a shoe brush in one hand and a dirty cloth draped around his neck, I could immediately see who and what the boy was. All artists must possess this ability to be able to see beyond whatever it is they are looking at. They have to be able to discern the image beyond the vulgarity of the spectacle.


Cite this page

Phillips, Caryl. “Ten Frames of Carl Van Vechten.” Tang Teaching Museum collections website. https://tang.skidmore.edu/collection/explore/51-ten-frames-of-carl-van-vechten. First published as “Four Frames of Carl Van Vechten” in Accelerate: Access & Inclusion at The Tang Teaching Museum 2 (2018).

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