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The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > Creative Americans

[Detail] Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald by Carl Van Vechten

Performing Arts

The majority of the collection's photographs were taken of actors, actresses, and dancers, often captured in costume, on stage, and in character. By browsing these portraits, taken from the early thirties to the early sixties, students may get a feel for what the performing arts were like during these decades.

The Occupational Index sites three dancers, but there are countless others to be found by browsing the Subject Index. Included among these is tap dancer, Bill Robinson, and Martha Graham, one of the most famous innovators of modern American dance. Have students search Graham, examine these and other photographs of modern dancers, and write a paragraph explaining what inferences they can make about modern dance based on the appearance of these dancers' movements, costumes, and makeup. It may be easier for students to glean meaning from these images by comparing them to images of classical nineteenth century ballet, the traditions of which modern dance eschewed.

By examining photographs of actors and actresses, and by comparing them to contemporary images, students may draw inferences about film, drama, and the performing arts community in the first half of the twentieth century. As with dancers, students will want to use both the Occupational Index and the Subject Index to locate these images. Some possible questions to use in analysis include the following:

  • How are the costumes, clothing, makeup, and set design in these pictures different from those of drama and movies today? What has remained the same?
  • What do you think these portraits were used for? Who do you think wanted these pictures taken, Van Vecthen or his subjects? What might a performer want her portrait to look like?
  • Where do you see pictures and portraits of performers today? Do they remind you of the portraits in this collection? How would you account for the similarities and differences?
  • Some portraits' captions include performance titles. What can you find out about these performances by searching their titles on the web? (Other titles may be identified by searching names of film stars from the collection, such as Jimmy Stewart, Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, Harry Belafonte, and Orson Welles).
  • How many of these titles belong to plays? How many are movies? Who wrote them? Who starred in them? What are they about? Which ones were popular?
  • What does this suggest about the kinds of subjects and themes that audiences and producers were interested in during the Thirties, Forties, Fifties, and Sixties?