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Postcards from Manhattan: The Portrait Photography of Carl Van Vechten features over 2,400 postcards bearing black-and-white portraits of notable individuals from the first half of the twentieth century. Photographed by Carl Van Vechten between 1932 and 1956, the famous subjects include authors, artists, musicians, dancers, actors, directors, entertainers, and intellectuals. Together these portraits constitute a veritable "who's who" of prominent persons of the twentieth century arts.

 

 

Historical context

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964) rose to public prominence as a novelist and critic of the arts, but his life changed in 1932, when he purchased a Leica camera and began photographing his vast circle of friends and acquaintances. Van Vechten's "hobby" soon became the major preoccupation of his life, resulting in a famous body of portraiture depicting hundreds of prominent individuals in the arts. Among Van Vechten's subjects were many African Americans -- not a surprising development, since he enjoyed a public reputation as a lover and patron of African American art and culture. The civil rights leader Walter White once referred to Van Vechten's Manhattan apartment as the "midtown branch of the NAACP."

 

A voluminous correspondent, Van Vechten often mailed his portraits to friends in the form of postcards, usually accompanied by greetings on the back side. Among the friends whom Van Vechten flooded with postcards was Karl J. Priebe (1914-1976), a prominent Wisconsin artist and fellow admirer of African American culture. From 1946 to 1956, Van Vechten mailed thousands of postcards to Priebe.

 


Karl J. Priebe (left) and Carl Van Vechten, New York City, 1953

 

Following Priebe's death, the postcards passed to Marquette University as part of the Karl J. Priebe Papers, maintained by the Department of Special Collections and Archives at the Raynor Memorial Library. Marquette's collection represents only half of the correspondence between these men: Priebe replied to Van Vechten's postcards with thousands of his own hand-drawn postcards. Priebe's postcards survive as part of the Carl Van Vechten Papers, held at Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

 

Creating the digital collection

Planning for the project began in April 2008, and work proceeded in two phases. The first phase focused only on postcards depicting African Americans and culminated in their February 2009 publication to coincide with the centennial celebration of the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In the second phase, the collection broadened to encompass all types of subjects. The department published these postcards in installments during 2009 and 2010.

 

The first phase began in early summer 2008, when archivists identified African Americans from the long list of Van Vechten's subjects and began scanning their portraits. Staff also scanned the back side of each postcard and performed the difficult task of transcribing Van Vechten's handwritten notes to Priebe. The department wishes to thank Professor Bruce Kellner - Van Vechten's biographer and successor trustee - for assistance in deciphering the illegible words scattered throughout this body of correspondence. Marquette bears responsibility for any remaining errors in the dating or transcription of these postcards.

 

Using CONTENTdm software, archivists began constructing the postcards in late fall 2008 for online presentation. Completion of the first phase coincided with a public program delivered by Professor Kellner at Marquette University on February 9, 2009, titled "Carl Van Vechten's African American Photographs and the Karl Priebe Legacy." Over 700 postcards became available to the public at that time, depicting 112 African Americans.

 

The project's second phase saw the digital collection expand beyond African Americans to encompass the whole range of Van Vechten's subjects. On November 30, 2009, the department published a second installment of postcards, nearly doubling the size of the collection. It published additional postcards in May 2010, and then, on October 1, 2010, completed the collection with a final installment that showcased notable dancers, both ballet and modern. The finished collection boasts over 2,400 postcards depicting 362 individuals.

 

To distinguish among multiple portraits of the same individual, archivists numbered the postcard titles sequentially (i.e., Billie Holiday 01, Billie Holiday 02, etc.). Please note that Van Vechten did not devise this numbering system. We tried to group like images together, but our arrangement does not claim to reflect the order in which Van Vechten took the photographs. It should also be noted that certain individuals posed on more than one occasion for Van Vechten, with their visits sometimes occurring years apart. To check the date of a photograph, click on the thumbnail to open the full image and then choose the "View item description" option located to the left of each portrait. A handful of the portraits remain undated.

 

The original postcards, on average, measure 3.5 inches by 5.5 inches. The backs of some postcards in the collection have been rotated for easier reading. Van Vechten addressed most of the postcards to Priebe; however, a few of them are addressed to Frank Harriot, Priebe's longtime friend and partner.

 

Further questions about this digital collection or the selection and workflow procedures involved can be directed to Bill Fliss.

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