Chair and Professor of Art History
Mount Holyoke College
In 1932, Carl Van Vechten acquired a Leica camera and turned his New York City apartment into a photography studio. By that time, he was already a reputed novelist and a dance and music critic for the New York Times and lifestyle magazines such as Vogue and Vanity Fair. The photography practice evolved from his long association with musicians, writers, dancers, and theater and film actors.
The William Earl Collection of photographs by Carl Van Vechten, 429 photographs printed on postcard stock now housed at the Tang Teaching Museum, captures the artist’s social connections. The poet Gertrude Stein stands next to a rosebush at her home in France in 1934.(1) The dancers Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade hold hands and smile on their wedding day at the White Barn Theatre in Westport, Connecticut, in 1955. That same year, Lavallade also poses in a studio against a printed fabric with a mango tree and a myna bird perched where her raised hands hold a piece of porcelain fruit. Outdoor images are candid; indoor images, which compose the bulk of the collection, are choreographed. Backdrops, props, and studio lights give Van Vechten’s subjects a magical quality. One example of this effect is a photograph of ballet dancer Hugh Laing sitting naked in a lotus position against an Art Deco–style printed fabric that flattens the image. Shadows created below the figure through masking and burn in the darkroom make the dancer levitate like the Buddha, as the inscription on the back describes.
The Earl Collection also captures private conversations. Van Vechten communicated with friends using homemade postcards printed from his negatives, ink-stamped on the back to separate the correspondence section from the address. One card is particularly significant in this regard. The image reproduces an 1868 lithograph by Édouard Manet, Le rendez-vous des chats, now in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.(2) On the back, the photographer writes: “Dear Bill, I am devoted to you and will be until you throw me out and probably will be even then! You must have your box before Christmas. I can’t come to you. Can you stop here some day anytime except late at night. Telephone me if you can and I will see you and explain the contents of the box. Love to you, Carlo.” The box, then, is a souvenir of a relationship that resonates in the “cats’ rendezvous.”
Between November 1960 and March 1961, Van Vechten took several photographs of the ballet dancer William “Bill” Earl in his apartment-studio at 146 Central Park West in New York City. Eleven photographs of Earl, dating to November 14 and December 19, 1960, are included in the collection. The November images communicate casual sociability. The young dancer sits on a low stool, wearing a T-shirt and nursing a tall glass. He also poses in his role as the Poet in George Balanchine’s ballet La Sonnambula. In December, softly lit images showing Earl in wistful and contemplative poses recall Victorian photographs of artists and writers. Then, evidently after receiving the box during the Christmas mentioned in the photographer’s note, the dancer poses for an elaborate shoot on March 27, 1961. Images held in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of that date show the dancer first in the costume of George Balanchine’s The Figure in the Carpet and then posed nude against a lightly printed fabric. The chronology of the photo sessions indicates that the box frames an invitation for the dancer to belong to an intimate archive of luminaries created through Van Vechten’s desire.