When author and social commentator Carl Van Vechten focused his camera on the African American community of writers, artists, singers, athletes, and politicians in Harlem beginning in the 1930s, it was an eye-opening experience. Not only did he manage to capture key figures of the Harlem Renaissance often early in their careers, his portraits also provided a lens into the black community revealing a vibrant culture that was nearly invisible to the mainstream art world. Included in SAAM's exhibition, Harlem Heroes: Photographs by Carl Van Vechten, are his images of James Baldwin, Ossie Davis, W.E.B. DuBois, Ella Fitzgerald, Althea Gibson, Langston Hughes, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and Bessie Smith. Of special interest to SAAM, the exhibition includes Van Vechten's portraits of Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Horace Pippin.
"I think it was my original intention to photograph everybody and everything in the world!" Van Vechten said about his work. In 1980, sixteen years after his death, the fragile 35mm nitrate negatives were transformed into handmade gravure prints by photographer Richard Benson and the Eakins Press Foundation. The painstaking and detailed process resulted in the album titled, 'O, Write My Name': American Portraits, Harlem Heroes, completed in 1983. Many of the photographs have not been on view since SAAM acquired them at the time.
In 1942, in an article for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's journal, The Crisis, Van Vechten wrote, "I have made myself during the past ten years, perhaps the largest group of photographs of notable Negro personalities ever made by one man." He would continue to document the lives of African Americans until his death in 1964.
Harlem Heroes is presented in honor of the opening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture next month.