Billie Holiday, March 1949 Billie Holiday’s session was a particularly difficult one for the photographer, taking him nearly two hours to “break her down.” After showing Holiday photos he had done of Bessie Smith, she opened up to him, both crying and laughing in the photos. Van Vechten considered his photographs of the iconic singer of such songs as “Strange Fruit” amongst his best.
Born in 1880 to parents who were staunch supporters of civil rights, Carl Van Vechten moved to New York City in 1906, where he became a highly influential dance and music critic for The New York Times. As a patron on the Harlem Renaissance, Van Vechten was deeply committed to the work of black writers and artists, writing the preface to poet Langston Hughes’s first book, The Weary Blues, encouraging white New Yorkers to visit Harlem nightclubs, and becoming the public relations arm of the movement during the 1920s.
When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, Van Vechten had already inherited a $1 million investment in a trust fund that was unaffected by the stock market crash of 1929. The fund provided financial support to Van Vechten, who was in his 50s. He decided to forgo his literary career and became one of the pre-eminent portrait artists of the twentieth century, photographing notable figures as diverse as Josephine Baker, Salvador Dali, and Gloria Vanderbilt.
Van Vechten’s images of African Americans, which he started to take in the early 1930s and which extend beyond the Harlem Renaissance, were part of his larger project to capture the people who defined New York’s dynamic culture. From this series of work, Van Vechten has given us some of the most memorable portraits of artists including Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Harry Belafonte, among many others. In celebration of his legacy, The Museum of the City of New York is hosting “Carl Van Vechten: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond”, an exhibition of his photographs from their extensive archive of his work in conjunction with the 26th anniversary of New York City History Day.
For the past 25 years, the Museum of the City of New York has been the sole host of the New York City History Day program, the regional competition of National History Day. Through this academic initiative, hundreds of middle and high school students from the city’s public, parochial, and private schools undertake creative history research projects in response to an annual theme. This year’s theme is “Exploration, Encounter, Exchange in History”. Through this lens, students can explore the Harlem Renaissance through the photographs of Carl Van Vechten, as well as ancillary first and secondhand source materials.
Utilizing primary resources, students discover and interpret historical topics, and learn to express themselves through projects in various media and formats, including original exhibit boards, documentaries, websites, papers, and performances. Their efforts culminate in a contest day hosted by the Frederick A.O. Schwarz Children’s Center at the City Museum on March 6, 2016. The awards will be issued on March 10, after which students will go on to compete in the New York State History Day on April 18.
In this way, “Carl Van Vechten: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond” works on several levels, as both an art exhibition and a tool for educational exchange. We are fortunate that five decades after Van Vechten’s death, his work survives, allowing new generations to engage with the historic figures of the part and to consider what their legacy means to us today, in the here and now.
All photographs ©Carl Van Vechten, courtesy of The Museum of the City of New York
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.