Author and social commentator Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964) began taking photographs in 1932. Over the next three decades he made portraits of writers, musicians, athletes, politicians and others, many of them central figures in the Harlem Renaissance, whose accomplishments dazzled contemporary audiences and, ultimately transformed American culture in the mid-twentieth century. In 1980, concerned that Van Vechten’s fragile 35 mm nitrate negatives were fast deteriorating, photographer Richard Benson, in conjunction with the Eakins Press Foundation, transformed fifty into handmade gravure prints. The album 'O Write My Name' :American Portraits, Harlem Heroes was completed in 1983.
This installation, presented in celebration of the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in September, will feature thirty-nine images, all works from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s permanent collection. Many of these photographs will be exhibited at SAAM for the first time since they were acquired. James Baldwin, Ossie Davis, W.E.B. DuBois, Ella Fitzgerald, Althea Gibson, Langston Hughes, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Bessie Smith, and other notable individuals will be on view. A number of the images are remarkable for capturing their subjects in their youth, as they were full of ambition but before they achieved enormous fame.
The works also are significant in the history of photography. When Van Vechten began photographing these important figures in the 1930s, it was at a time when the documentary impulse led to explorations of America’s black culture that were mostly invisible to the mainstream art world. These images are an invaluable record of that moment in American culture.
Exhibition overview from museum website
Whether you go or not, the above-mentioned publication 'O, Write My Name': American Portraits, Harlem Heroes presents portraits of fifty extraordinary people who participated in the great cultural movement that was the Harlem Renaissance. This collection by the photographer, critic and novelist Carl Van Vechten is a celebration of these inimitable writers, actors, musicians, painters, athletes and intellectuals as well as an acknowledgment of their unprecedented contribution to American art and culture. Van Vechten 's friendship with his subjects is reflected in the intimate nature of these portraits.