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Thursday, April 10, 2014
"The Camera Turned Upon the Wild Beasts" (on the photographs of Carl Van Vechten)
the camera turned upon the wild beasts
by Douglas Messerli
Soon after writing the piece above, I decided to post, on Facebook (where I am somewhat embarrassed to say I currently have over 2,300 friends), the photograph of Marlon Brando, so sexy I felt and yet fairly discreet, like so much of Van Vechten’s life—despite the wild times that were so well documented. His career as a photographer, beginning basically after his abandonment of writing in the 1930s, seemed, to my way of thinking, as a kind of restatement of his whole career, as he chose his subjects quite carefully, Black figures of Harlem, gay celebrities, and other slightly outré beings as subjects whom he might promote—a significant continuation of his whole endeavor to overturn the late 19th century sensibility in which he grown up. A “high” modernist, in every sense, Van Vechten, I now perceived, had rushed forward into the latter half of the century in which was to die, pointing to a kind of early postmodern diversity of arts that seemed, at times, at odds with his often personal Wildean celebration of the fin de siècle, so prominent in his own fictions.
Like his dear friend, Djuna Barnes, Van Vechten embraced a more arch view of literary history than did his close friend, Gertrude Stein. Although the tensions of those oppositions were at the heart of his writing and photography—even his partying—I believe he was never truly as comfortable as he wanted to be with the trajectory of his own radical visions. And accordingly, his remarkable recording of mid-20th century figures represents a sense of propriety and societal appropriation than he privately felt, particularly given his own, hidden, homoerotic photographs. And this appeals, still today, I realized, despite the sometimes less than specular results of his photographs, that makes his often amateurish-like works so appealing. As a man of contradictions, Van Vechten’s photography appealed precisely because it did project such controversial figures, Black, gay, and simply “outsider” beings upon the American consciousness as if it was the work of some slightly naughty uncle, a kind of male “Auntie Mame,” whom even the most conservative beings sometimes had in the attics of their lives.
Creating a dark room in his own apartment, Van Vechten—just as he had formerly given himself totally over to journalism, fiction, and spectacular partying, both outside and within his own home—now allowed photography to swallow up his life, again leaving, even within the walls of his own apartment, his wife, Finia, very much to herself.
The Brando portrait on Facebook was well-received and described by some friends such as vocal director Vance George as “Just natural. Beautiful.” Cedar Rapids-based (the home ground for both Van Vechten and my own upbringing) performance artist Mel Andriga—a local authority of figures like Van Vechten—joked, “What, no six-pack abs?” while another described Brando as looking a little pudgy. I responded to Marc Hofstadfer, the commentator, that “there always was something a little soft in Brando's virility, which is perhaps what made him even more sexy.”
In these responses I immediately sensed some desire and interest for viewers to see more of Van Vechten’s numerous photos, and I soon after published a strange picture that Van Vechten had made of his beloved Bessie Smith with a kind of fake voodoo-like African mask, to which professor Maria Damon commented: “It looks as if she resents the ‘primitivist’ tone Van Vechten is obviously aiming for,” to which I only had to agree. But others loved the photograph.
The next photo I posted, the lovely pairing of dancers and companions Hugh Laing and Anthony Tudor, received about 40 responses, obviously appealing to the community on my Facebook. But I also realized in their sometimes innocent comments that the beautiful figures who, one responded, “looked like Tony Curtis” (Anthony Tudor) was totally unknown to them, so I linked in the Google description of Tudor and Laing. People adored the couple, but I’m not sure they ever perceived who, precisely, they were viewing—two of the most significant dancers in New York, creators of the American Ballet Theater.
Perhaps, I realized, given a mix of well-known and lesser known figures, with the help of short bios, I might, like the teacher I have always been, help to inform some of my younger friends about the very individuals Van Vechten had been so determined to portray; and over the next two weeks, I posted pictures as various as the radical Emma Goldman, gay novelist Gore Vidal (in the prime beauty of his life), artist Thomas Hart Benton, dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the great singer-actor Ethel Waters (of whom Lee Chapman wrote, “I fell totally in love with her through her performance in The Member of the Wedding”) and of whom, I pointed out, that she was, in her Harlem days, one the last “red hot mammas”; jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, novelist William Faulkner, a very young singer-dancer Lena Horne, and an even a very young image of writer Truman Capote (of whom my high-school, now Swedish-living friend Nikki Lindquivst wrote “WOW’). A much better picture of singer Bessie Smith followed, along with dancer-singer Josephine Baker (whom authors Frederic Tuten and Liliane Giraudon loved), a nude portrait of dancer Bill Earl, fellow photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and one of many of portraits of Van Vechten’s beloved Gertrude Stein, to which Steve Rogers professed to like the portrait but not the subject.
When I posted a quite beautiful portrait of Norman Mailer, by friend Thérèse Bachand mused: “when they were young and urban unabused,” to which I responded: “Precisely, Thérèse. Van Vechten mostly seemed to catch his figures at a time when their careers hadn't yet become so legendary that they were destroyed. Everyone is young, beautiful, and potentially wonderful! He promoted the future more than the past!”
Mexican artist Diego Rivera, and singer Harry Belafonte (in two color photographs) followed, with postings of the Black poet Countee Cullen, novelist Carson McCullers, and two wonderful portraits of performer Anna May Wong (one in male drag) soon after, poet Aram Saroyan responding that Van Vechten was a “great photographer!”
In late March and early April I followed up with pictures of gay poet W. H. Auden, director Orson Welles (with my friend Thomas Frick responding, “He got portraits deeper than anyone else’s of the folks you’ve posted.”), a beautiful color photo of singer-actor Eartha Kitt, artists Frieda Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe, and dancer-choreographer Alvin Ailey. Tom La Farge “wanted” Langston Hughes’s beautifully-checked suit (so might I) and everyone loved the highly artificed portrait of writer-playwright Jane Bowles. Boxer Joe Louis was followed by lesbian novelist Anais Nin, artist Salvador Dali, American playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder, dressed in long trench coat and looking extremely powerfully over the camera lens, and a sexy, slightly scornful opera singer, Leontye Price. A rather fragile and frightened actor Ruby Dee was followed by the great singing performer Paul Robeson, after which I posted a picture, in full sartorial formal dress, of Van Vechten himself.
“This could go on forever,” I warned as I posted a color photo of Black, gay writer James Baldwin, actress Judith Anderson (of whom writer-editor Lee Chapman commented that she was, as was often was described of her, “Taking a dim view.”), and a portrait of Pearl Bailey (far more restained that Van Vechten’s Bailey with nude breasts which I’ve reproduced here). Jazz performer Billy Stayhorn was followed by Van Vechten’s famous portrait of writer Zora Neale Hurston, his picture of Black dancer Paul Meers, and a snapshot view, one of the last photos taken before the subject died, of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Through Van Vechten, I introduced by friends to the witty Algonquin member Beatrice Kaufman, the conservative—anti-gay—leader of the Harlem community, W.E.B DuBois, and Van Vechten’s early photo capture of lesbian author Djuna Barnes.
There was only one response to the photo British author Evelyn Waugh—he appears to be forgotten by my Facebook friends—and hardly anyone responded to the gay couple, playwright Donald Windham and Sandy Campbell, who introduced Van Vechten to playwright Tennessee Williams. Artist Marc Chagall received strange comments about who he reminded people of (Woody Allen and Lukas Foss); Tennessee Williams, the poet-writer Bryher, gay playwright Edward Albee, Black writer Claude MacKay, and Danish short-story writer Isak Dinesen, with Van Vechten himself kissing the hand of the elder Dame, were added. In the final days, warning my friends again that the postings could go on forever—more than a thousand photographs have been archived, but according to scholar James Smalls, there may be that many more still unregistered—I posted a picture of Jean Cocteau’s lover, actor Jean Marias (whom my friend, writer Nina Zivancevic described as “Quite a nice guy, far more [nice] than Jean.”), actress Tullulah Bankhead, gay playwright William Inge (who I felt I also needed to reintroduce to my “friends”), and one of my personal favorites, the gay Harlem writer and artist, Richard Bruce Nugent.
I mention all of these figures not to celebrate anything I might have done by reposting these easily accessible images, but simply to indicate the vast archive that Van Vechten left The Beineke Library of Yale University.
Certainly, over the years, I’d seen collections of some of these photographs; but in selecting and posting these photos anew, I suddenly gained a new appreciation of not only the vast range of Van Vechten’s documentation, but of the quality and selectiveness of his choices. Many of these individuals, since the photographer’s death in 1964, have become lionized and loved, but in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, when he was photographing them, they stood, in his mind and in the mind the culture at large, basically as outsiders, as what one might describe as “wild beasts” of the American landscape. These Black, gay, drunk, profane celebrants were all, in one respect or another, outside of the American mainstream, yet people who Carl Van Vechten readily and enthusiastically embraced. “Carlo,” the outrageous, buck-toothed galoot “uncle” from Iowa somehow got everyone to pose before a camera which loved them for their very diversity and extravagences. Whatever the celebrity posers might have thought of him, Van Vechten loved them all, documented them, made sure that their presence might be felt upon the whole of the American culture. His achievement, no matter how one interprets his ego and intentions, has yet to be matched!
He charged nothing for the sittings, and generally awarded the participants with free negatives. For him it was an act of a generous reiteration to the U.S. nation: these are the people who matter to me. The amazing thing is that most of them, now, matter to all of us!
Los Angeles, April 3, 2014