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.
Professor of English