not but nothing other: African-American Portrayals, 1930s to Today

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964)
Richmond Barthé, 1934

After being introduced to photography in the early 1930s, the writer Carl Van Vechten began making portraits of well-known actors, artists, musicians and writers. His career as a writer and critic, along with his wife Fania's connections to the acting world, gave him access to many prominent individuals. Given his particular interest in Black culture, many of Van Vechten's most familiar portraits are of artists and entertainers connected to the Harlem Renaissance.

Typically for Van Vechten, each sitter is captured in a bust- or half-length pose. Composition, lighting and expression were all meant to complement the traits of the person photographed. Composer and singer Cab Calloway, for example, appears in stage costume and exaggerated attitude, suggestive of the entertainer's extroverted, public persona. In contrast, Van Vechten highlights sculptor Richmond Barthé’s features as if he were one of his own artworks. Together, these five images compose a deeply sympathetic gallery of Black cultural luminaries of the 1930s.

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