Tomorrow I turn thirty [indistinct] years old and I’ve been thinking about a lot of stuff. Last week a young woman whom I knew slightly was killed in Cleveland. She was an arts and culture journalist who had recently been hired by our newspaper, the Plain Dealer. I’d known her for her work before I’d ever met her. She was relentlessly curious and sought to elevate every great thing happening in Cleveland in every community. The breadth of her interests and spirit reminds me of another culture journalist from another time: Carl Van Vechten.
Born in 1880 and raised in Iowa, Van Vechten made his way to New York after studying writing, art, and music at the University of Chicago. As a journalist, Van Vechten often took pictures to accompany his stories, and his photography became one of the many contributions he made to American culture (in addition to being one of the first modern dance critics and the literary executor for Gertrude Stein).
Van Vechten and his second wife Fania Marinoff immersed themselves in the dance, art, music, and literature communities of Manhattan, particularly the modern dance, jazz, and postmodern literature scenes. Though married twice, he maintained romantic relationships with men throughout his life, including a long-term relationship with Mark Lutz, who destroyed their correspondence following his death, per Van Vechten’s wishes.
The first photos I remember seeing by Carl Van Vechten were the ones below of Gore Vidal and Harry Belafonte. They are great examples of his use of texture, pattern and geometry in his backgrounds, and the way he intimately captures his subjects’ personality. Vidal’s accusatory, superior stare, sharply contrasting with Belafonte’s boundless energy and optimism. In contrast, however, is the 1955 photo above of wife and husband dancers Carmen de Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder, whose work that year became de Lavallade’s signature: Come Sunday, set to a song by trailblazing folk musician Odetta. In this photo, he uses a pose reminiscent of the High Renaissance to express his feelings on the Black American artists in Harlem at the time. Van Vechten very much felt that the passionate, exciting work coming out of the Harlem Renaissance was the heartbeat of America.
While he was not always a technically proficient photographer, his enthusiasm for his subjects, his bold breaks with social convention, his unique aesthetic, and his acute sense regarding the future of American arts and letters made him a unique documentarian of a time and place in America that would reshape culture forever. Rest in power, Carl and Nikki. Be safe and be brilliant, folx.