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June 30, 2022

50 Vintage Studio Portraits of Celebrities Taken by Carl Van Vechten From the 1940s and 1950s

Carl Van Vechten, a familiar figure among New York City’s literary and artistic circles in the early 20th century, tried his hand as a novelist, critic and journalist, to varying results, before picking up a camera in 1932. He proved a natural photographer. But perhaps more importantly, he had built relationships (in some cases decades-long) with many of the brightest artistic lights of the era, who were happy to pose for him: James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and dozens of others.

During his career as a photographer, Carl Van Vechten’s subjects, many of whom were his friends and social acquaintances, included dancers, actors, writers, artists, activists, singers, costumiers, photographers, social critics, educators, journalists, and aesthetes. In the artistic and intellectual communities of his day, Van Vechten truly covered the waterfront.

Beginning in 1932, in the studio in his New York City apartment, Van Vechten photographed many of the most famous and influential figures of his day as well as up-and-comers and artistic outliers. As a promoter of literary talent and a critic of dance, theater, and opera, Carl Van Vechten was as interested in the cultural margin as he was in the day’s most acclaimed and successful people. His diverse subjects give a sense of both Carl Van Vechten’s interests and his considerable role in defining the cultural landscape of the 20th century; among his many sitters one finds the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance, the premier actors and writers of the American stage, the world’s greatest opera stars and ballerinas, the most important and influential writers of the day, among many others.

Van Vechten’s portraits have become more than just well-loved images; Van Vechten has helped to define the ways his subjects will be remembered, the way they will enter history and the popular imagination. Van Vechten’s most compelling photographs document the photographer’s artistic sensibility while demonstrating his significant talent for portraiture.

Mattiwilda Dobbs, 1955

Adele Addison, 1955

Alvin Ailey, 1955

Marian Anderson, 1947

Pearl Bailey, 1950

Josephine Baker, 1949

Harry Belafonte, 1954

Mary McLeod Bethune, 1949

Joyce Bryant, 1953

Diahann Carroll, 1955

Thelma Carpenter, 1949

Ladybird Cleveland, 1954

Janet Collins, 1949

Countee Cullen, 1941

William Demby, 1956

Ossie Davis, 1951

Beauford Delaney, 1953

W.E.B DuBois, 1946

Katherine Dunham, 1940

Blanche Dunn, 1941

Dizzy Gillespie, 1955

Martha Flowers, 1953

Juanita Hall, 1953

Chippie Hill, 1947

Billie Holiday, 1949

Richard Huey, 1944

Lena Horne, 1941

Earle Hyman, 1947

Ulysses Kay, 1946

Lawrence Jones, 1955

Eartha Kitt, 1952

George Lamming, 1955

Everett Lee, 1948

Canada Lee, 1941

Alain Locke, 1941

Joe Louis, 1941

Gerri Major, 1951

Ann Petry, 1948

Maidie Norman, 1951

Leontyne Price, 1953

La Belle Rosette, 1950

Muriel Smith, 1944

William Warfield, 1951

Josh White, 1946

Portia White, 1944

Jean-Louis Barrault, 1952

Ethel Barrymore, 1942

Barbara Bel Geddes, 1955

Kermit Bloomgarden, 1943

Marlon Brando, 1949

(Photos by © Carl Van Vechten/ Marquette University Archives)


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