Thursday, 23 October 2014

Harlem in Colour: Living Portraits

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964) was a US-American photographer, writer, promotor of literary talent, and critic of dance, theatre and opera for The New York Times. He started taking photographic portraits in 1932 and discovered the then new colour film in 1939. Van Vechten asked artists, intellectuals, educators, musicians, composers, dancers, entertainers, and activists - many of them luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance - to sit for him. And so they did. The collection (1939-1964) comprises 1.884 colour Kodachrome slides (via).

Carl Van Vechten was "an unlikely champion of the African-American experience". The night clubs in Harlem made him, as he said, "violently interested in Negroes". He saw himself not only as a supporter of Harlem Renaissance but as a vital part of it (via).

Van Vechten published "Nigger Heaven" in 1926, a novel described as a "notorious, baroque travesty of black life in Harlem" but also as a "literary and civil rights success". The choice of the title was also controversial, reactions ranged from outrage to applause.
"Was Carl Van Vechten a good thing to happen to Langston Hughes, the Harlem Renaissance, portrait photography and the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection at Yale University, the four focuses of his professional and personal enthusiasms? The hundreds of portrait photographs taken in the years after he ceased writing fiction are a valuable record of famous, prominent and striving people of color, but the general judgment seems to be that Van Vechten was no Gordon Parks or Henri Cartier-Bresson. The service he rendered as indefatigable magpie of black correspondence, manuscripts, notes, photographs and musical recordings that constitute the vast Johnson Collection is universally acknowledged to be a contribution of unsurpassed importance to letters, history and race relations." (via)

"Negro life is seizing its first chances for group expression and self-determination."
Alain Locke, critic and teacher (1926)

Harlem Renaissance (c. 1918-1937) was a new black culture identity shaped by artists and intellectuals. The intent of the movement was not a political but an aesthetic one. Although participants sought to reconceptualise "the Negro" apart from the white stereotypes, defraying ethnic prejudice was secondary to the "expression of our individual dark-skinned selves." Harlem Renaissance became the most influential movement in African American literary history (via and via).

Carl van Vechten photographed Peter Abrahams, Prince Etuka Okala Abutu, Armenta Adams, Adele Addison, Alvin Ailey, Betty Allen, Sanford Allen, Martina Arroyo, William Attaway, Ethel Ayler, Pearl Bailey, James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Roy Thompson Beresford, Mary McLeod Bethune, Charles Blackwell, McHenry Boatwright, Margaret Allison Bonds, Paul Bontemps, William Stanley Braithwaite, Carol Brice, Jonathan Brice, Maurice Brooks, Anne Wiggins Brown, Debria Brown, Roscoe Lee Browne, Joyce Bryant, Ralph J. Bunche, Dan Burley, Miriam Burton, John Carlis, Thelma Carpenter, Diahann Carroll, John Carter, Shirley Verrett Carter, Horace Cayton, Omar Clay, Ladybird Cleveland, Leo Coleman, Durward B. Collins, Janet Collins, Zebedee Collins, Clayton Corbin, Edna Cordoza, Eldzier Corter, Robert Curtis, Jimmy Daniels, Ossie Davis, Gloria Davy, Ruby Dee, William Demby, Beauford Delaney, Inez Dickerson, Hugh Dilworth, Mattiwilda Dobbs, Owen Dodson, W. E. B. DuBois, Todd Duncan, Roy Eaton, Bobby Evans, Martha Flowers, Benny Garland, Althea Gibson, Richard Gibson, John Birks “Dizzie” Gillespie, Shirley Graham, Reri Grist, Nicolas Guillen, Juanita Hall, Bertha “Chippie” Hill, Ramon Blancos Habana, Frank Harriott, Afrika Hayes, Marion Hayes, Roland Hayes, Chester Eugene Haynes, Godfrey Headley, Chester Bomar Himes, Geoffrey Holder, Leo Holder, Charlotte Holloman, Nora Holt, Marilyn Horne, Langston Hughes, Phillipa Husley, Earle Hyman, Ivie Jackman, Annette Jackson, Mahalia Jackson, Raymond Jackson, Louise E. Jefferson, Charles Johnson, Hal Johnson, Hylan “Dots” Johnson, Marie Johnson, (Everett) LeRoi Jones, James Earl Jones, Laurence Clifton Jones, Ulysses Kay, William Melvin Kelly, Eartha (Mae) Kitt, George Lamming, Carmen De Lavallade, Everett Lee, Henry Lewis, Powell Lindsay, James Lowe, Robert Keith McFerrin, Claudia McNeil, Geraldyn (Gerri) Hodges Major, Claude Marchant, William Marshall, Mabel Mercer, Lizzie Miles, Arthur Mitchell, Edgar Mittelholzer, Mollie Moon, Linwood Morris, Willard Motley, Lorenzo Newby, Maidie Norman, Godfrey Nurse, Frederick O’Neal, Leonard de Paur, Louise Parker, Louis Peterson, Julius Perkins Jr., Mildred Perkins, Charles Perry, Ann Petry, Evelyn La Rue Pittman, Leontyne Price, Bertice Reading, Guy Rodgers, Percy Rodriguez, Pearl Showers, Edith Spurlock Sampson, Diana Sands, Harold Scott, George Shirley, Bobby (Robert Waltrip) Short, Merton Simpson, Noble Sissle, Clarence Smith Jr., William Gardner Smith, Rawn Spearman, Melvin Stewart, William Grant Still, Billy Strayhorn, Howard Swanson, Archie Savage, Wesley Tann, Ellen Tarry, Dorothy Taylor, Claude Thompson, Veronica Tyler, Margaret Tynes, Henry Van Dyke, Elaine Vance, William Warfield, Dorothy West, Moran Weston, Clarence Cameron White, Josh White, Lindsay H. White, Roy Wilkins, Billy Dee Williams, Camilla Williams, John Alfred Williams, Maurice Williford, Ellis Wilson, John W. Work, Dale Wright (via), Ella Fitzgerald, Jane White, Zora Neale Hurston, Adelaida Hall, Joyce Bryant, Muriel Rahn, Ethel Waters, Muriel Smith, Billie Holiday, Alan Meadows, Blanche Dunn, Ethel Ayler, Claude Marchant, Richmond Barthé, Robert McFerrin, Amiri Baraka, Harold Jackman, Mary McLeod Bethune, Dorothy Maynor, Alain Locke, Billy Dee Williams, Roscoe Lee Brown, Juanita Hall, Claude McKay ...

Follow-up posting: Harlem Renaissance

photographs via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via 


  1. Replies
    1. A most accurate word formation for Van Vechten's photographs :-) Thanks, Wim!

  2. Replies
    1. They are. And so many of them! Big thanks for commenting, Erin!

  3. Drop-dead beautiful photos, they really are.

    1. Absolutely. So that means there should be a follow-up posting, right? ;-)

  4. Replies
    1. The photographs are so special; and they look even better together. Many, many thanks, Kenneth.

  5. Abbie Winterburn24 October 2014 at 17:11

    Laura! Many thanks for posting this beauties!

    1. And thanks a million for your kind comment, Abbie!

  6. Can you identify Leo Coleman among these wonderful images? Where is the collection located?