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April 7, 2022

Billie Holiday Through the Lens of Carl Van Vechten in 1949

In 1949, Carl Van Vechten, the American essayist, novelist and photographer who had a profound interest in music, literature and Afro-American culture (in 1926 he wrote Negro Blues Singers for Vanity Fair), as a part of his African Americans Portraits project photographed Billie Holiday.

It was Gerry Major who arranged the session and asked Billie to wear on a gown. Billie, ignoring the request, showed up in a grey dress and even greyer mood. Van Vechten talked her into a more intimate look and choice of clothes which she eventually accepted with changing to a silk gown and a Gauguinesque dress underneath.

They worked through the night and it didn’t go well at all until Van Vechten, at the verge of giving up the whole idea, showed Billie his pictures of Bessie Smith. Lady Day, staring at the pictures of one of her idols, started to cry. That softened the mood drastically. They shot until dawn and then Lady left. That was the last time Van Vechten saw Billie Holiday.

These photographs are from that night in March 1949.


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