Faces of the Thirties

Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Earl Jones in Langston Hughes's "Don't You Want to Be Free?" (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Among the heroes of public culture, James Billington, the long-serving Librarian of Congress, ranks high.  Under his leadership, the Library of Congress has been on a drive to digitize its vast collections and make them accessible online to a global public.  Sound recordings, films, photographs, old prints, drawings, maps, manuscripts—millions of items can now be viewed and freely used, to the extent that copyright law allows.  Many of the illustrations on Our Polity are from its website.

Among the Library’s holdings are a collection of photographic portraits by Carl Van Vechten, taken mainly in the 1930s.  Van Vechten (1880-1964) was an Iowa native and graduate of the University of Chicago who, in 1903, moved to New York City and became a journalist under the tutelage of Theodore Dreiser.

Van Vechten first made his reputation as an art and music critic, writing mainly for the New York Times, where he was a champion of then-neglected forms of popular music such as folk, jazz, and blues.  He also wrote about, and got to know, the many gifted African-American artists, writers, and intellectuals who, in what was referred to as the Harlem Renaissance, were first making their mark at this time.

Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Ethel Waters (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).     Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Ram Gopal (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)    Carl Van Vechten, GertrudeStein with American flag backdrop, 1935 (Courtesy of Library of Congress)    Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Leontyne Price (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).    Carl Van Vechten, Photograph of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Only in the 1930s did Van Vechten turn to photography, the field in which he scored his greatest lasting achievement.  Several thousand of his portraits survive, most but not all taken in his studio, amounting to a fascinating collective portrait of cultural life of the time.  Included among his subjects were noted composers, actors, singers, ballerinas, folk artists, novelists, poets, and prize fighters.  Many were Van Vechten’s friends; others were new or making a passing appearance on the scene.

Van Vechten’s photographs mirror the diversity that was then a new feature of America’s culture.  It was our first truly cosmopolitan, modern decade.  The Russian ballerinas, Jewish publishers, gay expatriate arts patrons, Spanish surrealists, and black opera-singers that thronged the cities represented a welcome and radical shift in a culture that had long been dominated by a pale, genteel population that was far more narrow and homogeneous.  In the thirties, American culture came of age, incorporating into itself the global currents that formed, and continue to influence, the culture of the present day.

Images from the Van Vechten Collection: (top) Actor Earl Jones; (inset, left to right)
Ethel Waters, Ram Gopal,
Gertrude Stein, Leontyne Price, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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How Much Do We Need?

House and fruit stand in Houston, 1943 (Courtesy Library of Congress via the Commons on Flickr)

During the Great Depression, in the 1930s and early 40s, the federal government sent photographers out all over the country to document the condition of the people (and to keep a few more photographers employed).  The effort produced some of the most famous images in American photography, as well as scads of seldom-seen photographs, like this one, now available online.

The pictures capture America at a time when the modern consumer society was just beginning.  Americans drank Pepsi and Coke, bought things on credit, and wore factory-made clothes.  In many parts of the country, though, many Americans still used horses, made what they wore by hand, grew their own food, and did without refrigerators or washing machines.  The “March of Progress” hadn’t yet made it to their neighborhoods, and perhaps some were not all that eager to see it arrive.

Life was tough, but the relative simplicity of Americans’ material conditions brought clarity.  It was easy to see the relation between work and the standard of living people enjoyed.  Then, as now, many Americans lived in a precarious state or in out-and-out poverty.  Society was less knit together in a corporate economy, so the solitude of failure was a specter individuals lived with daily.  The wedge between the hard work of getting and the easy work of spending was already there, but there were far fewer goods to buy.

A tension had already developed, between the industrial output of the US and the capacity of individual citizens to consume all of what the nation made.  As early as the 1890s, the government and corporations began pushing to develop markets for our products overseas, producing the kind of globalism that prevails today.  No one has ever figured out what to do when the goods in the world exceed what the human population wants or needs.

Today, in a time of high long-term unemployment, commentators fret about “low consumer confidence.”  We’re told this is the reason American corporations are reluctant to hire.  Yet it’s perverse to hope that Americans will spend when they are in debt, unemployed, and impoverished.  It’s amazing how much more “confident” a consumer feels when he or she has a paycheck or a real wad of money.

Corporations and banks show their contempt by sitting on hordes of cash rather than making it a priority to hire American workers, which would ease our collective difficulties.  Meanwhile, we have lost sight of economic independence as an important goal of a free people.  In the midst of this antagonism, we need to keep asking, how much do we need?

Top image: House and fruit stand in Houston, photographed by John Vachon, 1943,
from this source
.