Carl Van Vechten is as controversial a figure now as he was in the 1920s: beloved by Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston; hated by W.E.B. Du Bois, Countee Cullen, and Alain Locke. That Locke would clash with Van Vechten is, perhaps, to be expected—the so-called "Father of the Harlem Renaissance" and the so-called "Patron of the Harlem Renaissance" were bound to come to rhetorical blows. Perhaps, as Du Bois and Locke complained, Van Vechten bleached the black experience in his attempt to present it to the rest of America. I don't feel like rehashing those debates right now.
Why not discuss instead his work, like the best cat book ever written (and the only one to be cited in my dissertation), The Tiger in the House (1922). A representative sentence:
You'd be hard-pressed to find a more exemplary weaving of ailurophilia and intellectual labor than that. But I'm not even interested in discussing his written today. Today, I want to show you a few shots from the veritable Yearbook of American Literature he produced.
Here's Principle Dreiser:
The Working Class Nerd, Cliff Odets:
The Dapper Prep, Gore Vidal:
The Class Clown, Truman Capote:
And The Effete Preacher's Boy, James Baldwin:
If I knew more about photography, I'd be able to tell you why I find his portraiture so captivating. I've sifted through all I can find, but can't identify some common trait. I'd say something corny like "the fact that I can't identify some common trait is what makes them brilliant, inasmuch as they're more about the subject than the photographer," but that just shifts the burden of ignorance around. It may be true, but I still wouldn't know why.
You can find hundreds of Van Vechten portraits in the Library of Congresses' "American Memory" database.