Van Vechten’s career changed course in 1913. That February, the Armory Show introduced avant-garde European painting toAmerica. It also introduced Van Vechten to another quarter of the New York arts community. At this time, he became aware of Alfred Stieglitz’s Photo-Secessionists, who urged the acceptance of photography as an art form. Soon thereafter, he resigned from the Times and returned to Paris, where that May he met Gertrude Stein. His intimate friendship with Stein brought him in contact with the work of photographers like Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, and Alvin Langdon Coburn. Stein’s writing and her symbiotic relationships with artists provided Van Vechten with a model for his career as a writer and photographer. Over the next several years, Van Vechten contin-
ued to write for various publications, expanding into literary criticism and even collecting his essays in several volumes. From 1922 to 1930, he published seven novels, most of which were quite successful. His novels, like his photographs, sought to capture the personalities of New York. His bestknown book, Nigger Heaven, was the first exploration by a White author of Harlem cultural life. Although many black intellectuals bridled at the book’s title and its primitivism, even Van Vechten’s detractors acknowledge his vital promotion and support of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1928, Van Vechten’s older brother Ralph
died, leaving him a sizeable fortune. Shortly thereafter, the caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias introduced him to the Leica, the first successful 35 mm camera. Freed from the need to support himself by writing fiction and intrigued by the possibilities of the Leica, Van Vechten soon abandoned literature and devoted the rest of his life to photography. Starting in 1932, at age 52, Van Vechten invited acquaintances in the arts to pose for him. For the rest of his life he chose his own subjects and never worked for hire. As Van Vechten was himself a well-known writer
and critic, he approached his subjects as a peer and an insider. His friendships with his subjects afforded him an understanding of their personalities, an intimacy rarely seen in celebrity photographs. He preserved this intimacy by keeping his portraits simple, avoiding elaborate costumes and special effects. Occasionally he would incorporate an elaborate backdrop or a prop; sometimes he would use raking light, but little more. Sometimes he would draw out his subjects by having them narrate their life stories
as he photographed them; Billie Holiday’s story moved him to tears. Elsewhere, he tried to return them to happier times in their lives, as he did-with only partial success-with Bessie Smith. From very early in his career as a photographer,
Van Vechten realized the value of his work to historians and scholars. A large percentage of his work depicts prominent African-Americans; some of these portraits, like those of Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston, are among the only extant images of these important writers. He conferred on AfricanAmerican artists and intellectuals a formal dignity that others reserved for political and commercial leaders. By preserving the personalities of AfricanAmerican culture, he sought to encourage the future study and appreciation of their deeds. To this end, he established many large collections of photographs, literature, and art at Yale University, Fisk University, the New York Public Library, and several other institutions across the United States. From beginning to end, Van Vechten’s career is
remarkable for its consistency: almost all of his photographs were black-and-white portraits of celebrities. He was not known for technical or artistic innovations, nor was he the first photographer to specialize in celebrities. Within his narrow range, though, Van Vechten produced remarkable images that memorialized his subjects and evoked their personalities.