|A matt silver print on textured, double-weight paper showing a self-portrait by the photographer Carl Van Vechten.
Born in 1880 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Carl Van Vechten developed an interest in music and theatre at an early age, which he found hard to satisfy in his hometown. After attending the University of Chicago, he moved to New York in 1906, where he was hired as the assistant music critic at the New York Times. The following year he took a leave of absence to study opera in Europe, and while in England, married his long-term friend from Cedar Rapids, Anna Snyder. In 1909 he returned to the New York Times, soon becoming the first American critic of modern dance.
His first marriage ended in divorce in 1912 and in 1914 he married actress Fania Marinoff. The same year, he left his full time job at the newspaper, but continued to write, publishing several collections of his essays on music and ballet. His first novel was published in 1922. Through his frequent visits to Harlem, Van Vechten became interested in promoting black artists and writers. His controversial novel Nigger Heaven was published in 1926 and he later photographed many of the creative people he met in Harlem.
The Mexican painter Miguel Covarrubias introduced Van Vechten to the 35mm Leica in the early 1930’s and he began photographing his wide circle of friends, fledgling artists and the established cultural figures of the time. Among those he photographed were F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith, Marc Chagal, Horst. P. Horst, Georgia O’Keefe, Gertrude Stein (whom he initially met in 1913, eventually becoming her literary executor), Alfred Stieglitz, Truman Capote, Pearl Bailey and Billie Holiday. His portraits are frequently busts or half-length poses, taken in front of bold backdrops. Dancers were usually photographed on stage. Van Vechten employed an assistant to set up his lights, but did his own darkroom work.
During the Second World War, Van Vechten volunteered at the Stage Door Canteen, where he met Saul Mauriber, who became his photographic assistant, a position he filled for twenty years, organizing Van Vechten’s photographs and eventually becoming the executor of his estate.
Van Vechten felt very strongly that his collection of manuscripts, letters, clippings, programs, and photographs, many pertaining to creative blacks, should be available for scholarly research. He therefore, during his lifetime, presented various parts of his collection to several university libraries. He died at the age of 84 in New York City in 1964. In 1966 the Library of Congress acquired its collection of some 1,400 photographs from Saul Mauriber.
Despite his two marriages, Van Vechten was homosexual. His private papers, kept under seal for 25 years after his death, were found to include scrapbooks of clippings and photographs relating to homosexuality.
The print is signed in ink by the photographer on the mount in the margin, below the lower left-hand corner. The date, 28 May 1932, is given by a pencilled inscription on the reverse of the mount.
The print measures 8.8” by 6.6” (223 mm by 168 mm); it is mounted on a sheet of stiff, olive green card measuring 11” by 7.9” (279 mm by 200 mm).
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