Several beautiful portraits by Carl Van Vechten, who photographed many of the 20th century’s most illustrious intellectuals and artists, have recently shown up on the Library of Congress’s Flickr feed. Among them is this particularly surreal composition, featuring a young Truman Capote, photographed against a dreamlike marbled background with puppets. At just 24 years of age, Capote was already attaining the status of a celebrity with the publication of his first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms.
After a difficult year, the advent of the Christmas Star was something wondrous to look forward to. The internet buzzed with how Saturn and Jupiter would align almost perfectly in their orbits, so much so as to appear as one unusually bright star. This rare occurrence, coinciding with the winter solstice and technically known as “the Great Conjunction,” happens only once every four-hundred years. The last time the Great Conjunction occurred in the night sky, however, was in 1226. Earthlings primed to look up into the late December sky in 2020 stood to witness a cosmic and extraordinary rapprochement. Bob and I (total amateurs when it comes to such things) talked over our astronomical excursion excitedly.
On the 20th, as the sky grew dark, the two planets grew more distinct. Jupiter sported a sweet pink halo; that was Saturn. We found that our best view of the sky was from under some huge evergreen trees near a very powerful streetlight. Gradually, we lost a clear view of the planets, as they descended at a roughly 45-degree angle toward the horizon.
I took this photograph on the 22nd, using a Nikon with a 36x zoom. This is a more clinical, scientific view. The planets only appear to be “next” to one another, when they are hundreds of millions of miles away from one other and from us. Saturn (at right) is roughly twice as far away from Earth as Jupiter is.
This picture from the 22nd, taken with my Sony on a tripod, better captures the thrill of seeing the two planets in the cold twilight sky. Saturn is now clearly to the right of brilliant Jupiter. Saturn looks like a pearl with an ermine ring. Fiddling with this picture in Photoshop doesn’t improve anything. The astonishing clarity of the planets filled me with awe.
This was perhaps the best picture I took, because, to the left of the planets, one can just make out several of Jupiter’s moons. The 22nd was partly cloudy, and we were lucky that the wispy clouds broke enough up to reveal this dazzling sight. For a happy hour, we gazed up with our binoculars, our cameras, and our unaided eyes, until the planets disappeared into the trees.
Two men in high silk hats breathe the style of the times. The year is 1889. They are old enough to remember the century’s watershed event, the Civil War, which is long in the past, it being more than two decades since Appomattox. These gentlemen, and millions of others, have moved on. They are Gilded Age creatures, inhabitants of a rapidly modernizing society enjoying ever-increasing wealth. Their era was empty of historical grandeur: in that respect, the 1880s, with their intense but under-examined social problems (including widening economic inequality), were somewhat similar to today.
Formally attired, but looking like they are often so, the two men smile into the camera of Uriah Hunt Painter. Painter and the man on the left may be engaged in a mutual photo-shoot, for each has a Kodak camera, a new invention that became the era’s most fashionable ‘toy.’ This picture captures how people had begun to use it—not too differently from how people use their cell phones now.
The sun is shining on this Easter Monday, as all Washington gathers for the first-ever Easter egg hunt on the White House lawn. The watch-chain of one man snakes along the surface of his taut belly, a symbol of the symbiosis between efficiency and attaining plenty. He and his friend both sport the flamboyant facial hair that was a hallmark of the Gilded Age—the vast mustaches and expansive mutton-chops that would prevail even it Teddy Roosevelt’s time, the mutton chops first popularized by General Burnside, and eventually leading to the coinage of the enduring term, ‘sideburns.’
President Theodore Roosevelt, holding his top hat in one hand and flanked by two officers and an unidentified man, looks down at the photographer from the back of a railroad car. The year is 1903. The spontaneity of this picture registers how mainstream photography and photographic portraiture were changing in the wake of George Eastman’s revolutionary invention of the hand-held Kodak camera.
By then the Kodak camera had been around for fifteen years, but its impact was still widening and generating change. Because the Kodak was not just a new type of camera, but a new type of film, and one that gave the user freedom from having to learn film processing, it made picture-taking easier for everybody. Amateurs began taking pictures like crazy. The Kodak process also represented a big leap forward in terms of stop-motion photography, suddenly endowing pictures of living subjects with greater immediacy.
Those qualities shine in this marvelous photograph of President Theodore Roosevelt, taken during one of his myriad railway journeys. Who was the photographer? Was it a professional photographer assigned to cover him, or an ordinary American, perhaps even a woman, who successfully beseeched the President to pose just this one time? Did he even consent? His aides look amused, but Roosevelt himself looks positively put out.