A black and white photo of Bessie Smith in a sleeveless top embroidered at the shoulders. On her right shoulder is the sculpted head of a larger-than-life-sized Black figure with wide eyes and a broad grin. Smith's eyes are pointed upwards at the figure's face.
"Bessie Smith, February 3, 1936," by Carl Van Vechten. Gift of John Mark Lutz, 1965.

Carl Van Vechten and the White Gaze

Laila Islam, Former Fellow in Prints, Drawings, & Photographs

How patronage and racist imagery converge in Van Vechten’s photographs of Black artists

Throughout the collection of Carl Van Vechten photographs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art are portraits of Black creatives—musicians, singers, dancers, and other historical figures from the 1930s to the 1960s. Van Vechten, a white American music critic, photographer, and author, was considered an “honorary Negro” by his peers due to his support of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and ’30s. Inspired by this period, he wrote Nigger Heaven, a novel that was controversial in its own time, which illustrates the Black experience in 1920s Harlem from Van Vechten’s perspective.

Van Vechten’s photographs document networks of Black American intellectuals and creatives from this time. But in many of these portraits, Van Vechten perpetuated racist visual canons. For instance, a portrait of Bessie Smith shows the blues singer posed beside Black memorabilia. Similarly, Van Vechten portrayed the dancer and model Feral Benga shirtless and playing a drum in front of an exoticized backdrop of tiger skins.

Black and white photograph of Feral Benga in front of a tiger skin backdrop. Feral is in the lower right of the frame, shirtless, with a cigarette in the left side of his mouth. He wears an explorer hat and is playing a drum which is on his lap.
Feral Benga, January 10, 1937, by Carl Van Vechten

And yet, Van Vechten’s portraits also helped legitimize and popularize the art created by the Black creatives he photographed. Black creatives—both then and now—are thus constrained by the consumption of white audiences. Without the approval and support of white audiences, Black creatives can find it hard to make a living from their craft. But along with this support can come the harmful classification and reduction of Black art and artists.

Over the course of two years studying Van Vechten’s work as a fellow with the museum’s Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, I found that his photographs preserve a complex history of white voyeurism. When viewing these portraits, I often wondered about the agency of his subjects. What did they consent to? What did they object to? What boundaries were tested in the making of these photographs? I came to believe that the context and intention of these photographs were heavily influenced by Van Vechten’s own perspective on his sitters.

Among the thousands of photographs by Van Vechten in the museum’s collection are portraits of the Black American opera singers Marian Anderson and George Shirley. The careers of and interaction between these two singers exemplify Black creatives navigating racial discrimination in the United States through supportive camaraderie.

Sepia toned photograph of Marian Anderson. She is pictured from mid torso up, wearing a dark, off the shoulder dress with flowers at the low neckline. She wears her hair up and is looking to the top of the frame of the photograph, with her mouth slightly parted.
Marian Anderson, January 14, 1940, by Carl Van Vechten

Anderson, a contralto and Philadelphia native born in 1897, broke through lines of racial segregation to perform in spaces that historically denied Black audiences and artists entry. In 1939 the all-white Daughters of the American Revolution famously opposed Anderson performing at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. She instead gave a historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The singer supported up-and-coming Black opera singers throughout her career, until her death in 1993.

Van Vechten likely met Anderson after watching her perform onstage in New York in the 1930s. A letter to the Harlem Renaissance poet and author Langston Hughes captured Van Vechten’s excitement at photographing Anderson: “I’ve photographed Marian Anderson at last. . . . What a lamb Miss Anderson is! An angel!” This photograph was taken just months before the singer’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial, which was attended by nearly 75,000 people and broadcast via radio to millions more. Anderson and Van Vechten continued an acquaintanceship in the years following, meeting several times at Anderson’s studio in Danbury, Connecticut.

Black and white photo of George Shirley. He is seated in a upholstered armchair with carved wooden arms. His elbows rest on the arms of the chair, his hands clasped right over left in front of his chin. He looks to the right of the frame. He is clean shaven and wears a dark jacket and tie, tweed pants, and a ring on his left ring finger. He sits in front of a dark background, a circular patterned fabric hangs behind his head.
George Shirley, October 10, 1961, by Carl Van Vechten. Gift of John Mark Lutz, 1965.

Shirley, nearly forty years Anderson’s junior, became the first Black tenor to sing a leading role for the Metropolitan Opera. Like Anderson, Shirley has inspired another generation of Black opera singers, especially through his work as a professor of voice at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and his 1970s radio show, Classical Music and the Afro-American. On this program, he interviewed other Black American opera singers, such as Martina Arroyo, Leontyne Price, and Robert McFerrin.

About twenty years before he photographed Shirley, Van Vechten had founded the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, an active archive collection housed at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New Haven. He was eager to include as many portraits of Black creatives as possible in the archive, and it was presumably with this goal in mind that he photographed Shirley, already a notable figure despite being in just his late twenties.

The Exchange Between Documenter and Documented

Van Vechten’s portraits of Anderson and Shirley show the two singers in formal attire, similar to what they might wear for an operatic recital. Anderson is warmly smiling, presumably at Van Vechten. The photographer would often capture female operatic singers while in song and bashfully smiling, while male subjects like Shirley he showed in charming yet serious postures. Shirley sits back in one of Van Vechten’s chairs, his hands clasped as he glances to something out of frame. These depictions differ markedly from two of his photographs of Bessie Smith and Feral Benga. It seems as if Van Vechten believed that Anderson and Shirley—two singers of opera, a historically white, Eurocentric art form—should not be depicted in crude racial stereotypes. This would perhaps indicate that Van Vechten took some of his sitters seriously while reducing others to unsophisticated caricatures. He thus curated a narrative through these portraits, determining which forms of Black art were valuable and which were not. As photographer and patron, he decided what was worth documenting, and thereby legitimizing, and did so through his own narrow and personal assessment.

Anderson, Shirley, and White Voyeurism

In 1974 Shirley interviewed Anderson on his radio show. Anderson was in her late seventies and past the peak of her career, while Shirley was still actively performing opera. During a discussion of the Daughters of the American Revolution’s opposition to her performance in 1939, Anderson said, “We are all here to have a kind of living of our own, and to be recognized for what we are, not for what somebody thinks we should be. And this you need not travel very far from home to recognize, that this really exists.” Acknowledging Van Vechten’s sensationalizing and limiting view of the Black experience encourages us to recognize and celebrate Black creatives for who they are rather than what the white gaze expects them to be.

In documenting historical figures, Van Vechten also documented his own perspective as white voyeur and patron. Through these works, we see the dynamic between patron and Black creative, a relationship that may have mutually benefitted both Van Vechten and his sitters but not without cost to Black creatives, who had to navigate the demands of white perception. Recognizing the tension inherent in the relationship between white photographer and Black subject can encourage us all to think critically about how we consume the art of historically othered creatives. Instead of perpetuating the idea of the Other, we can practice viewing these works as art created by fellow humans with different perspectives.

Laila Islam is a curator and multidisciplinary artist in Philadelphia. A senior at Moore College of Art and Design majoring in curatorial studies, they recently completed a two-year Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. Islam identifies as a curator committed to artistic community engagement and radical healing. They define radical healing as a practice that provides marginalized demographics the platforms to exist and think outside the historical and current circumstances of oppression, allowing them to combat said circumstances while developing forms of mutual aid. Islam’s passion to intersect curation with community mobilization is reflected in their work as co-curator and collective organizer of The Future Is Us Collective.

This project has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.