Like a simultaneous exhibit of jazz portraits at the adjoining National Portrait Gallery, “Harlem Heroes: Photographs by Carl Van Vechten” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum is timed to the impending inauguration of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Both exhibits dig into the Smithsonian’s photographic archives to chronicle a wide range of mid-century African-American artists (in both cases recorded by a white photographer, a reality glossed over in the exhibits). Of the two exhibits, Herman Leonard’s jazz photographs exude more verve and cool. Van Vechten’s images, taken as much as 20 years earlier, are more historically groundbreaking and serve as a fitting memorial to Van Vechten’s role as a patron of African-American artists—but as artistic objects, his images fall short.
Photographing primarily in the 1930s and 1940s, Van Vechten (1880-1964) produced works that are typified by their soft focus and almost claustrophobic indoor settings, with the subjects often posed tightly against walls. (A rare, and stunning, exception is the outdoor image of a radiant, 24-year-old Lena Horne) The photographs are accompanied by original pages from a late-1970s, posthumous collection of Van Vechten’s work, with the packages typically including a short biographical caption and a thematically linked poem.
A genuinely impressive selection of black writers, artists, performers and athletes are included—Zora Neale Hurston, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Paul Robeson, Ossie Davis, Jacob Lawrence, Joe Louis, Althea Gibson, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and W.E.B. DuBois. But relatively few of Van Vechten’s portrayals stand out; exceptions are education pioneer Mary MacLeod Bethune looking the part of an intense CEO, Mahalia Jackson in a pensive moment, and Romare Bearden wearing his World War II uniform. Moreover, many of the subjects will be thoroughly unfamiliar to those without a deep knowledge of the black artistic Zeitgeist of 80 years ago. (By contrast, the individuals Leonard photographed in the jazz exhibit remain well-recognized giants of their field six decades later.)
The exhibit’s most impressive accomplishment is one that sneaks up on you: Of its three rooms, the first two are composed entirely of women, a reality that’s easy to miss. Only when one reaches the all-male third room does one discover the absence of men.
Of all the women pictured, the most poignant is a young girl, Esther Perkins, who is described as a relative of Van Vechten’s personal cook—a girl about whom essentially nothing is known today. Much could likely be written about her life if we had anything to go on, but in her case at least, the absence of historical knowledge makes her face more compelling than any of the celebrities she shares the room with.
Through March 19 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and F Streets NW. Daily, 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m.