Art: MDPLS Exhibits O Write My Name: America Portraits – Harlem Heroes

Photos of acclaimed African American artists, from Lena Horne and Zora Neale Hurston to Horace Pippin and Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, are currently on view at the Opa Locka Library, in an exhibition entitled: O Write My Name: American Portraits – Harlem Heroes.

This exhibition features 50 portrait photos of African-American artists, writers and musicians taken by photographer Carl Van Vechten between the years 1930 and 1960. O Write My Name was put together by the Newark Museum in Newark.

The collection consists of photogravures made by Richard M.A. Benson and Thomas Palmer for the Eakins Press Foundation from Van Vechten’s original 35mm negatives.

In the 1920’s, Van Vechten, drama and music critic, novelist, and photographic chronicler of the Harlem Renaissance, became one of the leading popularizers of the African-American culture to white America. His attraction to African-American culture brought him into contact with many of the black writers, musicians, and artists who were the foundation of the Harlem Renaissance, like James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston and Claude McKay among others. Van Vechten not only provided a visual biography of Harlem from the 1920s through the 1960s, he was involved in the dynamics of the Harlem Renaissance itself, having developed friendships with many Harlem writers, musicians and artists who he introduced to white artists, patrons and publishers.

O Write My Name includes portraits of Lottie Allen, Marian Anderson, James Baldwin, Romare Bearden, Mary McLeod Bethune, Arna Bontemps, John W. Bubbles, Ralph Bunche, Countee Cullen, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, W.E.B. DuBois, Katherine Dunham, Ruby Elzy, Ella Fitzgerald, Althea Gibson, Dizzy Gillespie, W.C. Handy, Roland Hayes, Altonell Hines, Nora Holt, Lena Horne, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Mahalia Jackson, Charles S. Johnson, J. Rosamond Johnson, James Weldon Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, Alain Locke, Joe Louis, Rose McClendon, Claude McKay, Mildred Perkins, Vera Peterson, Horace Pippin, Dorothy Porter, Leontyne Price, Paul Robeson, Bill Robinson, Edith Sampson, Bessie Smith, Maxine Sullivan, Howard Swanson, Sarah Victor, Margaret Walker, Fredi Washington, Ethel Waters, Josh White and Richard Wright.

Born 1880 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Van Vechten moved to New York City three years after earning his bachelor of philosophy degree in 1903 from the University of Chicago. As a novelist, photographer and patron of the arts, his contributions to the New York City cultural and social scene were significant.

Famously a socialite, he regularly hosted receptions at his home during which intellectuals, theater stars, and literary figures interacted and formed interracial communities. Such a mélange of people often departed from socially accepted gatherings common in New York City during the early twentieth century. At a time when African Americans had great difficulty with purchasing opera tickets or getting service at downtown restaurants, Van Vechten created an alternative space in order to forward his artistic and professional aspirations while countering practices of racial segregation.

At the age of fifty, following the completion of his autographical novel, Sacred and Prophane Memories (1932), Van Vechten began photographing. He famously took portraits of a broad selection of noteworthy artists in the fields of music, literature, journalism and the visual and performing arts. Most of his portraits share a common aesthetic; the images, taken during private photography sittings in his home, often include a backdrop of patterned or crinkled mylar material, with the half-length, animated subject taking up most of the shallow picture plane. Many of the portraits are rather playful, provocative, and often suggest performative elements.

Van Vechten took a particular interest in African American individuals and saw photography as a tool for advancing the acceptance and appreciation of black culture within American society. The African American portraits that comprise the ‘O. Write my Name: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes reflect his commitment to portraiture as an art form with the capacity to change public opinion.

He had grand aspiration for the project and he circulated and exhibited the portraits widely. He distributed postcards and 8 x 10 prints to friends and associates near and far. For those personally close to him, it was not unusual for them to find a postcard with a brief note from the photographer in their mailboxes. He exhibited the portraits in unconventional spaces, including NYC’s Wadleigh High School, the windows of Roger Kent Stores, and Rockefeller Plaza. In 1941, a selection of prints were donated to Yale University as part of Van Vechten’s newly established James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters.

O. Write my Name includes fifty of his portraits taken between 1930 and 1960 posthumously reproduced through a hand photogravure printing process on behalf of the Eakins Press Foundation in 1984. Richard Benson, who earned a MacArthur grant for his advancements in gravure printing techniques, printed for the series. Each print features a portrait inlayed above an accompanying text panel. The letter pressed text states the year of the photograph, the sitter’s name, a passage from an essay, interview or autobiography, and a few biographical sentences, which were all selected and arranged by the publisher to celebrate the photograph’s subject.

From literature, to dance, theater and photography, Van Vechten saw the possibilities art provided as a tool for aesthetic exploration and social progress. He was the first American critic of modern dance for the New York Times and the author of numerous novels, including Peter Whiffle (1922), The Tattooed Countess (1924) and Spider Boy (1928). His most controversial novel, Nigger Heaven (1926) received sharp criticism for its offensive title and lowlife portrayal of African American characters. He died in New York City in 1964 at the age of eighty-four.

North Dade Regional Library, 2455 NW 183rd St; Opa Loca. For info: 305.375.5572 or mdpls.org

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