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A Passionate Observer Of New York's Jazz Age

Photographs by the self-taught Carl Van Vechten serve as a personal record of the famous faces of the 1920s and '30s

ON the walls of the picture gallery are familiar faces from long ago - composer George Gershwin, boxer Joe Louis, singer Billie Holiday, novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, showman George M. Cohan, and painter Georgia O'Keeffe. They peer out of their frames, eyes fixed, mouths frozen.

But as you walk through the exhibition, strange things begin to happen. The walls seem to echo with a whisper of jazz. From the corner of your eye the faces seem to quicken, then move. Suddenly, it's New York in the 1920s and 1930s; New York when it roared; New York in the Jazz Age.

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"The Passionate Observer: Photographs by Carl Van Vechten" is a personal record of an extraordinary time left by one of this century's most remarkable figures. Carl Van Vechten was America's first dance critic, a prominent music critic, a successful novelist, and a passionate supporter and patron of the black renaissance in Harlem.

In the late '20s he became independently wealthy through an inheritance, and decided to devote the rest of his life to photographing his famous friends. From 1932 to his death in 1964, he made an estimated 15,000 photographs. Seventy-six have been selected for this exhibition, which originated at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo.

"Van Vechten never took commissions. He never photographed anybody he didn't want to photograph," says Keith Davis, exhibition curator and director of Fine Arts Projects for Hallmark, which is underwriting the exhibition.

"He discovered the Leica camera in the late 1920s," Mr. Davis says. "It was perfect for an amateur like him. You didn't have to be a trained professional anymore to achieve quality photography. He set up a studio in his apartment, and soon it was quite the thing to be invited over for a session."

George Gershwin was a particularly close friend. He often came over to Van Vechten's 55th Street apartment for sittings - and stayed to play late into the night on Van Vechten's rosewood piano.

In Gershwin's portrait, there is not a trace of the kind of studied pose you might find in other portraits by photographers like Edward Steichen. Rather, Van Vechten captures Gershwin's open, direct, and friendly gaze.

INDEED, some of the best of these portraits are distinguished by their utter candor and simplicity - especially those of prominent African-Americans like poet James Weldon Johnson and dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.

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"Certainly Van Vechten's many associations with the so-called `Harlem Renaissance' of the 1920s are apparent in the exhibition," says Bruce Kellner, author of "Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades" (1968) and an adviser to the exhibition.

"He loved the Harlem scene and he truly believed in jazz as America's best hope for music," Mr. Kellner says. "His novels and articles for Vanity Fair in the mid-1920s really launched places like the Cotton Club and many significant black artists.

"Although Van Vechten was a white man from the Midwest," Kellner says, "early in his life he had been inoculated against prejudice by his family; and as early as 1915 he was calling for a black-arts movement to declare independence from the white cultural scene. It is because of him that the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters was installed at Yale University. And, more indirectly, the Langston Hughes Archive, also at Yale."

If most of the portraits display a friendly, even confiding quality, this is not to say that Van Vechten didn't have a flair for the theatrical. He frequently cropped the faces in odd ways, sometimes cutting off foreheads (his self-portrait) or placing the face near the lower border (actress Katherine Cornell).

Some of the figures are oddly contorted. Cab Calloway's out-thrust arm and backward-flung neck threaten to burst the frame. The seated figure of Harry Belafonte leans forward in a deep crouch, the curve of the swanlike neck a complement to the arabesque patterns behind him. Singer Leontyne Price swaggers toward us, her jutting elbows serving as powerful compositional stabilizers.

Van Vechten took childlike delight in placing some of his subjects before appropriately decorative backdrops.

George M. Cohan, for example, is surrounded by patterns of stars and stripes.

Georgia O'Keeffe is posed before one of the white animal skulls she depicted in her paintings. And, most strikingly, behind a young Truman Capote dangles a row of marionettes.

Curator Davis defends his title for the exhibition, "The Passionate Observer": "That's a phrase from Baudelaire that I thought was very appropriate. He was talking about the `dandy,' what he defined as a modern man who is in tune with the fashions and the ideas of his age. That fits Van Vechten perfectly. Whatever he did, he did passionately. And with a privileged eye."

* The exhibition is in the middle of its tour. It moves to the Detroit Institute of Arts May 12-July 3, and then to the Knoxville (Tenn.) Museum of Art July 24-Sept. 26.

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