Biography of Carl Van Vechten

Carl Van Vechten was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1880. The youngest son of a successful banker and a mother who was an patron of the arts, Van Vechten grew up in a liberal and sophisticated household. He graduated in 1903 from the University of Chicago, his interest in writing causing him to take a job as a journalist. In 1906 he moved to New York and began writing for the New York Times, taking on more and more of the arts assignments. In 1913 he met Mabel Dodge, a wealthy patrons of the arts, and through her met the leading artists and intellectuals of the time, including Alfred Steiglitz, Marsden Hartley, Gertrude Stein and Emma Goldman.

Between 1915-1920 Van Vechten wrote several books of critical essays on various topics in the arts. In the 1920s he moved on to writing fiction, publishing several novels that were critical and financial successes. At this time Van Vechten discovered Harlem and spent a great deal of time there enjoying its diverse cultural and artistic offerings. This began Van Vechten's lifelong interest and championing of the African-American arts and people.

In 1932 Van Vechten moved on to a new career, from novelist to photographer. While he was always interested in photography, it was the introduction of the new Leica camera, portable and using the inexpensive 35 mm film, that caused him to take photography seriously. Van Vechten took thousands of photographs on all subjects but his favorite subject, and the one he is most known for, is portraiture. Many of the portraits by Van Vechten are of friends and acquaintances in the arts world he moved in. Because of his interest and friends in Harlem, Van Vechten took many photographs of notable African-Americans, documenting an important part of early 20th-century American history ignored and neglected by others.

Van Vechten's photographic career lasted until his death in 1964 at the age of 83. He created more than 15,000 photographs during his career, attempting to chronicle the artistic world of his time. By the time he started his photographic career Van Vechten was financially secure and never had to worry about commercial success. It was only after Van Vechten's death that a serious market for art photography was established; thus Van Vechten was able to pursue his own interests and personal aesthetic.

Davis, Keith F. The Passionate Observer: Photographs of Carl Van Vechten. Kansas City, MO: Hallmark Cards, Inc., 1993.
Kellner, Bruce. Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.