Smithsonian American Art Museum, Renwick Gallery
26 August 2016- 2 April 2017
At the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964) picked up a camera and discovered the power the photographic portrait has over the photographer himself. Over the decades, his fascination with the medium remained strong and he asked writers, musicians, athletes, politicians, and others to sit for him—many of them central figures in the Harlem Renaissance whose accomplishments fueled not only the New Negro movement but also transformed the broader American culture throughout the twentieth century. These groundbreaking men and women included James Baldwin, Ossie Davis, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ella Fitzgerald, Althea Gibson, Langston Hughes, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Bessie Smith, and others. Some of the portraits capture their subjects on the cusp of success as they were full of ambition but before they became famous; others depict men and women looking back on long and varied careers, tested by the fickleness of fortune.
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 of the portraits into handmade gravure prints. The album ’O, Write My Name’: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes was completed in 1983. That year, the National Endowment for the Arts transferred the Eakins Press Foundation’s prototype albums to the museum. This installation features thirty-nine of Van Vechten’s images, all works from SAAM’s permanent collection. This is their first presentation as a whole since they were acquired. These portraits, spanning more than thirty years, record a vital aspect of the American Century.