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[Detail] Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald by Carl Van Vechten

Historical Analysis and Interpretation

Webster defines a portrait as "a pictorial representation of a person usually showing his face." But some of Van Vecthen's portraits, like this one of Rose Covarrubias, don't even offer a good view of the person's face.

Why did he do this? How does that make for a good representation of a person? Is it a good representation of a person? Would you even call that a portrait? What would you call it?

Students can develop their visual literacy by exploring these and other questions as they compare Van Vechten's photographs.

The above photograph may not seem to offer a good pictorial representation of Rose Covarrubias, but what does it do? If Rose Covarrubias doesn't seem to be the subject of the photograph what is? If she is the subject, what does this photograph tell you about her and how? Have students consider other portraits with these questions. It may help them to think of the photographs in terms of the techniques that Van Vechten used, including the use of props, of light and shadow, background and setting, pose and expression, distance, movement, and composition (that is the arrangement of shapes and lines in the frame). Ask students to identify what techniques Van Vechten used and how they influence what one sees and thinks about the person depicted.

Another way students can appreciate Van Vechten's volition is to compare how he photographed people of different professions, using the Occupational Index. Or they can compare his portraits with those of William P. Gottlieb in Photographs from the Golden Age of Jazz and Robert Runyon's portraits in The South Texas Border, 1900-1920.