Faces of the Thirties

Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Earl Jones in Langston Hughes's "Don't You Want to Be Free?" (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Among the heroes of public culture, James Billington, the long-serving Librarian of Congress, ranks high.  Under his leadership, the Library of Congress has been on a drive to digitize its vast collections and make them accessible online to a global public.  Sound recordings, films, photographs, old prints, drawings, maps, manuscripts—millions of items can now be viewed and freely used, to the extent that copyright law allows.  Many of the illustrations on Our Polity are from its website.

Among the Library’s holdings are a collection of photographic portraits by Carl Van Vechten, taken mainly in the 1930s.  Van Vechten (1880-1964) was an Iowa native and graduate of the University of Chicago who, in 1903, moved to New York City and became a journalist under the tutelage of Theodore Dreiser.

Van Vechten first made his reputation as an art and music critic, writing mainly for the New York Times, where he was a champion of then-neglected forms of popular music such as folk, jazz, and blues.  He also wrote about, and got to know, the many gifted African-American artists, writers, and intellectuals who, in what was referred to as the Harlem Renaissance, were first making their mark at this time.

Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Ethel Waters (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).     Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Ram Gopal (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)    Carl Van Vechten, GertrudeStein with American flag backdrop, 1935 (Courtesy of Library of Congress)    Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Leontyne Price (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).    Carl Van Vechten, Photograph of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Only in the 1930s did Van Vechten turn to photography, the field in which he scored his greatest lasting achievement.  Several thousand of his portraits survive, most but not all taken in his studio, amounting to a fascinating collective portrait of cultural life of the time.  Included among his subjects were noted composers, actors, singers, ballerinas, folk artists, novelists, poets, and prize fighters.  Many were Van Vechten’s friends; others were new or making a passing appearance on the scene.

Van Vechten’s photographs mirror the diversity that was then a new feature of America’s culture.  It was our first truly cosmopolitan, modern decade.  The Russian ballerinas, Jewish publishers, gay expatriate arts patrons, Spanish surrealists, and black opera-singers that thronged the cities represented a welcome and radical shift in a culture that had long been dominated by a pale, genteel population that was far more narrow and homogeneous.  In the thirties, American culture came of age, incorporating into itself the global currents that formed, and continue to influence, the culture of the present day.

Images from the Van Vechten Collection: (top) Actor Earl Jones; (inset, left to right)
Ethel Waters, Ram Gopal,
Gertrude Stein, Leontyne Price, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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